When I reviewed ABBYY TextGrabber + Translator yesterday, I noted that the translation in that app uses Google translation services, which means that an Internet connection is required. But what if you don't have Internet access, perhaps because you are in a location with poor reception and no WiFi, or perhaps you are in a foreign country with no data access? Fortunately, ABBYY makes an iPhone app called Lingvo that can perform translation right on the iPhone with no Internet connection needed. I purchased it to see how it worked in conjunction with TextGrabber, and while that was disappointing, Lingvo on its own is a fantastic app.
The TextGrabber app has a dictionary button that you can tap to send text to Lingvo, so I thought that I would be able to scan a document, tap a single button to send all of the text to Lingvo, and then have Lingvo translate the entire document — much like the support for Google translation within the TextGrabber app. But that's not how it works. Lingvo can only get 5 words or 200 characters from the clipboard, so sending an entire scanned document from TextGrabber to Lingvo will only give you the translation of the first few words. Thus, Lingvo has limited utility as an accessory to the TextGrabber app.
But as a stand-alone app, Lingvo is incredibly useful. The app supports dozens of different dictionaries that you download within the app itself. Some of the key, core dictionaries can be downloaded at no extra charge when you purchase this app. This includes basic English translation to (and from) Chinese, Czech, Danish, French, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Turkish. But you can also purchase additional dictionaries that includes more words, including specialized dictionaries.
For example, the basic, included English to French dictionary has 44,000 entries. For $9.99 (although currently on sale for $4.99) you can purchase the "Universal" French-English dictionary with 175,000 words. You can also purchase the Harper Collins French-English dictionary with 86,000 entries for $20.99 or other specialized dictionaries such as the Law, Politics and Economics French-English dictionary with 30,00 entries for $11.99. If you are interested in Russian, there are specialized dictionaries for computer terms, electronics, marketing, finance, management, law, politics, patents and even wine.
Once you download one or more free or paid dictionaries, you are ready to go. One way to use this dictionary is to simply type in a word in English or some other language. Then the app will give you a definition and a translation, depending upon which dictionary you selected. So in this example, I downloaded the free, basic KD English-French dictionary and typed in the word pomme. The app quickly told me this means apple in English.
Some definitions are simple like this. Other times the definitions give you more information. For example, when I typed bathroom in the basic KD English to French dictionary, I saw two definitions, the first of which was a more literal translation of "bath" and "room," but the second translation gives you a head's up that "salle de bains" in French is a room where you take a bath, but you want the "toilettes" if you are looking for a lavatory. And the Russian to English basic dictionary tells me that Салат can mean either salad or lettuce.
There are lots of iPhone apps that can translate between different languages, and one thing that sets Lingvo apart is the ability to download so many different dictionaries. But Lingvo comes from ABBYY, a company that has specialized in scanning and reading documents since the late 1980s, and what makes Lingvo incredibly neat and different from other apps is the built-in support for ABBYY’s on-device OCR technology for mobile platforms. The way that it works is almost magic.
Simply take a picture of a document, or choose a picture from your Photos. In the following example, I'm using the same Russian menu that I used in yesterday's review. Tell the app which dictionary to use, such as the Russian to English dictionary, and then give the app a second or two to perform an OCR of the document. All of this happens in the app itself; no Internet connection is required. Then you can simply tap on a word to see a translation of each word. So in this example, I tap on each of the words in the description of one of the salads and I learn that it is a "salad" "out of" "apple" "and" "cabbage" "with" "orange" "dressing." It is like having a translator at your side telling you what every word in a menu means as you point to it.
By comparison, when I used the TextGrabber app yesterday and did the translation using Google translate services, I was told this was a "Salad with apples and cabbage with orange sauce" — essentially the same thing, but it is more helpful to have access to a full dictionary in Lingvo to see that "соусом" in Russian has several translations: sauce; gravy; dressing.
Note that the photo translation function does not work for the Kazakh or Chinese dictionaries. Note also that while this is a universal app that works on the iPad, the photo input feature only works on the iPhone and iPod touch. [UPDATE: ABBYY posted a comment to this review to state that they are working on adding photo input to the iPad.]
If you just want to translate a specific word or phrase, you can also use the crop tool to create a smaller rectangle on the screen. Then the app will only OCR and translate the words in the crop rectangle.
The free dictionaries for the most part work fine, but a few times I noticed that they did not contain a word I was looking for. For example, in that Russian menu, the basic dictionary did not understand кальмарами. If you have an Internet connection, the app gives you the option to search online using another service such as Google or Wikipedia, which in this case will tell you that кальмарами means squid — which is probably information that you would want to know before you order that dish. But as noted, you can purchase additional dictionaries with more words, including specialized dictionaries such as legal dictionaries.
The app includes a flash card feature to help you learn a foreign language. Select any dictionary entry and tap the card button. Then when you are ready to start a lesson, the app will quiz you with the word in one language and when you tap the card it turns over to show you the translation in another language.
Some of the dictionaries have recorded pronunciations of words, but none of the free ones that I tried have that feature. The FAQ gives you a list of which dictionaries have recorded pronunciations.
I'm impressed with Lingvo. It performs well as a basic dictionary app when you need to look up a word, but the ability to use ABBYY's top-notch OCR technology to scan and translate words on-the-fly makes this an incredibly useful app. And all of this talk about reading menus in French, Russian and other languages is making me want to plan a vacation abroad!
Click here to get Lingvo ($5.99):