App of the Week – Google Translate

We are continuing a series called App of the Week, wherein we recommend the best apps to support the academic experience. Please let us know what you think, and feel free to provide suggestions for apps we should review.

Are you lGoogleLogoearning a foreign language, or traveling abroad in the near future? You may be using Duolingo or another resource to assist with language learning, but chances are you’ll still find yourself in a situation where you need quick, real-time language translation.

Google Translate has been an invaluable tool on the web for years, but its app version allows you to take its translation assistance on the go. Recently, Google’s acquired Word Lens instant translation technology, which provided a powerful upgrade to its real-time translation capabilities.

The app provides several ways to translate. There’s the traditional method of typing the sentence, choosing your to and from languages, and pressing go. You can also handwrite your phrase with your finger instead of typing it, and much like MyScript Calculator, the app will convert the writing to text and translate it.


The coolest features utilize the microphone and camera. Conversation mode allows you to speak in one language, and hear the translation in another. Your phrase–and the translation it gives you–shows up fairly quickly in text, but it can take a few more seconds for the app to speak. If someone is standing there with you, they can reply in their language, and you’ll hear the translation. Thus, it allows for rudimentary conversation – with some pauses and a little waiting. I imagine this technology will continue to be improved upon until it’s more natural.

As for the camera: you can take a photo of something, import it into the app, and translate it that way, which is fine if you don’t need an instant translation. Once you import the photo, you can swipe your finger over the text you’d like to translate. If it misses letters or words, you can add those in before you send the translation.

With the Word Lens upgrade, however, translation is instantaneous. Simply hold the phone up to the sign or menu, and watch it translate the text. It works best for steady surfaces with only a few words; book pages are not ideal, but it can technically work.



InstantEnglish1Most Helpful Features:

  • No wireless connection needed to perform Word Lens translations – a huge deal when traveling in another country.
  • When viewing an instant translation, you can press “pause” to hold a specific translation (it will flicker and change if you move around too much – see phantom “YOU” in the book photo!). You can also press “scan” to send it out for official Google translation, but you’ll need an internet connection for that.
  • For some of the languages supported in Conversation Mode, you can select a specific dialect, such as “Arabic (Qatar)” or “Mandarin (Hong Kong).”
  • After you’ve typed/drawn/spoken a translation, you will see it on the main page of the app. Like in Gmail, you can “star” it to save it for future use.
  • The current language offerings for instant translation are English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, but Google claims other languages are in the works.


The app definitely has its limits. Sometimes the translation is blatantly wrong (hilariously so), but I find that it’s usually at least in the ballpark.

Further, it offers a literal translation instead of a more nuanced take on a phrase. For example, “Je vois la vie en rose” translates to “I see life in pink,” but that’s not what it means. “I see life in pink,” or “I see life in rosy hues” means something akin to “I see life as beautiful/blissful.” It could be translated as “I see life through rose-colored glasses,” but without the blind or naive optimism of that particular English phrase. So if you’re attempting to have an in-depth conversation with a native speaker of another language, you’ll want to be aware of the app’s limitations, and perhaps find a human translator.

Finally, most of the translations (typing, importing a photo, conversation mode) need to have a Wi-Fi or data connection.

Bottom Line:

Google Translate offers several helpful translation services in one free app. While inaccuracies certainly occur, the app may make traveling abroad a bit easier, and may serve as an asset to foreign language study. As always, if you try it out, feel free to let us know what you think!

Further Reading:

Point and Translate: Google Translate App Update Introduces Word Lens Capability

Google Translate App Gets an Upgrade

Google Translate App Now Converts Spoken Conversations, Text From Photos

Use Google Translate to Transform Foreign Signs Before Your Eyes

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. No endorsement or recommendation of any specific products or services is intended or implied.

Contents contributed by Lauren D. Hall, Circulation Librarian