This app is amazing. Okay, now that I have that off my chest, let me explain what I am talking about. The new Google Translate app for the iPhone, released yesterday, allows you to enter text in one language — you can type it, or easier still, just speak the words out loud — and then in about a second the app displays your words in a different language — and with one touch can speak those words out loud. For example, make sure your the app is in English to French mode, press one button in the app, say to your iPhone "where is the train station," and then a second later your iPhone displays "où est la gare" and you can tap one button to have that spoken in French so that the person in Paris can hear and understand you and point in a direction. You could even press one button to switch the translation from French to English, have the other person speak the answer in French, and then you can see the answer in English. You need to have Internet access for this app to work, but I can imagine being in a foreign country in a Wi-Fi spot and using this app to communicate back and forth with someone even though neither one of us speak the language of the other. And you get all of this for the price of free. Amazing.
Here is a little more detail on how the app works. When you launch the app you will see two languages displayed at the top (if you have used the app before, they are the last two languages that you used). The "from" language is on the left, the "go" language is on the right. You can quickly swap those by tapping the arrows between the listed languages. Just below that, there is a text box. You can either tap in the box and type some words, or you can tap the microphone button just to the right of the box and speak. If you choose to speak to the app, the app notices when you stop speaking for a second and then starts to process your words. The app will only let you talk for about five seconds or so, long enough to say a short to medium length sentence.
After only a second or so, the app will then display the translated text in the language that you selected. For 24 languages — Arabic, Chinese (both simplified and traditional), Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish — the app will display a speaker icon to the right of the words. Tap that icon to have the app speak the phrase in a very authentic-sounding voice. Google says that the voices are speech synthesized, but they sound quite authentic to my ear. Note that the text-to-speech translation is limited to 100 characters, another reason that this app works best for shorter sentences. For an additional 34 languages — such as Azerbaijani, Hebrew, Irish, Swahili, Thai and Vietnamese — the app will display the text but does not offer to speak the text.
For many languages that do not use the Roman (Latin) alphabet used in America, Europe and elsewhere, just below the translated text the app will display a romanized version of the text, the idea being that if you try to pronounce those letters, you will roughly pronounce the words. For example, in the Russian example picture above, the first word displayed is "Простите." If you are not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia, you won't know how to say that, but romanization gives you a hint, telling you for example that a "П" in Russian sounds like a "P" in English, a "р" in Russian sounds like an "r" in English, etc.
Be aware that the translation is quite literal and thus even a "perfect" translation might not get the result that you want. For example, in the above pictures, you can see that the text that I said in English was "where is the bathroom." But note that in many other countries such as France and Russia, the "bathroom" is the place that you take a bath, whereas the "toilet" is the place that you take care of other important bodily functions. So to get a more precise translation, you would need to know to ask "where is the toilet" like this:
Another very useful feature is a full screen mode that lets you enlarge the translated text. Tap the box with the four arrows in it and the app will show, in large type and in landscape mode, the translated text. If you are in a noisy area, the other person may not be able to hear your iPhone very well, but someone can easily see the words on an iPhone in this mode.
There are a few more features in the app. You can tap the star next to a translation to add it to a list of saved translations. One good reason to save a translation that you can use it someplace even if you don't have a network connection. Thus, in your hotel using Wi-Fi, you can say some phrases that you plan to use and get translations, and then when you are out and about in a foreign country and not using a data plan, you can still use the translations you prepared ahead of time. If you tapped the speaker icon when you had that Internet connection, the audio file is saved in the app and can be used later when you do not have a data connection. Even if you don't add a star to a translation, tapping the Home button at the bottom left will always show you a list of your most recent translations. (In the Settings, you can clear that history if you want.)
This app is incredible right now, but I cannot wait to see what comes next. For example, although this app is new to the iPhone, a similar app has been available for Google's Android operating system for over a year. The Android version of the app currently has in beta a feature called conversation mode. Google describes it as follows:
In conversation mode, simply press the microphone for your language and start speaking. Google Translate will translate your speech and read the translation out loud. Your conversation partner can then respond in their language, and you’ll hear the translation spoken back to you. Because this technology is still in alpha, factors like regional accents, background noise or rapid speech may make it difficult to understand what you’re saying. Even with these caveats, we’re excited about the future promise of this technology to be able to help people connect across languages.
This conversation mode currently only works for English and Spanish, but it gives a sneak peak of what could be coming soon to the iPhone app.
Note that this is currently just an iPhone app. It runs on an iPad, but is not optimized for the iPad's screen. Having said that, I can still see an advantage of using this app on an iPad (in 2x mode) because of its large screen. Speak a sentence, tap the full screen button, and then you can hold up your iPad like a huge sign making it easy for the non-English speaker to see the translation even from far away.
It has been possible to use the Google Translate website with the iPhone for a while now, and the website was even nicely formatted for the iPhone screen, but the "web app" version of Google translate couldn't hear what you said nor could it speak translations out loud, plus it lacked the other features like full screen mode. This new Google Translate app brings translation on the iPhone to a new level. If you think that you ever might encounter someone who does not speak English, I urge you to get this app immediately.