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From Star Trek’s universal translator to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Babel Fish, we’ve all dreamed of a day when language barriers will be a thing of the past. We’re inching closer to that future with solutions like Google Translate on iOS and Android, but this powerful app isn’t as effortless as it first appears. If you depend on it for translations on the go without understanding its limits, you can end up in some frustrating situations.
If you need a basic overview of the Google Translate app, check it out here. If you’re ready to actually take it on the road, here are 4 hurdles that I ran into using the app in Japan and how you can avoid them.
Don’t Forget Language Packs
If you’ve been using Google Translate solely within reach of your WiFi and data plan, you may not realize exactly how much language info isn’t stored on your device. Until you set the app to retain translation data for specific languages, it defaults to fetching translations from the Internet. This behavior can be an inconvenient surprise for the unprepared traveler.
Translating Tip: Many languages have offline data packages you can download to your device. Once you know which languages you’ll need access to while you travel, see if they have a pushpin icon beside them. If they do, you can download an offline package to your device. Each language pack is only a few hundred megabytes, so you’ll almost certainly have enough space on any recent smartphone. Be sure to be connected to WiFi for this download, though, so you don’t burn through your data plan!
No Data? No Voice!
Even with the appropriate offline language package, if you don’t have access to the Internet while you travel, you lose Google Translate’s speech recognition, pronunciation guidance, and the option to have your device read translations aloud. If your target language uses the same alphabet or characters as your native language, you may be able to muddle through pronouncing translations yourself, but if you’re going from English to something like Russian, Hindi, or Japanese, the hurdles ahead of you get considerably more frustrating.
Translating Tip: If you have the money to spare, consider renting a portable WiFi hotspot for your trip. A limited data plan can be a great resource to fall back on when you can’t seem to communicate with Google Translate’s offline features. If you splurge on a more generous plan, you can even share your trip with friends through these cool services. Just try to avoid aggressive photo and video sharing to ration your data budget.
The Burden Of Participation
When I reached Japan, I had a strong idea in my head about how Google Translate would let me talk to people. I’d speak into my phone, show the native speaker my translation, they’d speak back into my phone and pass it back, and we’d enjoy easy communication.
Unfortunately, I forgot to account for the willingness of native speakers to handle my device. I was never in a situation where I could get a clear answer as to why some people wouldn’t speak back into my phone. I noticed the most resistance from people who were currently on the clock at a job (train station attendants, for example), as well as older residents. Whether it was out of fear of breaking my device, concerns about germs and cleanliness, or just plain misunderstanding, some wouldn’t engage with the app in the way I needed them to for it to do its job.
Translating Tip: There’s no way you can make another person engage with Google Translate, so while you can get your message to your conversation partner, you may not be able to understand their response. Look for phrasebook and dictionary apps in your target language to help you reach an understanding with these speakers. If you’re asking a question, it may also help to find a way to rephrase it as a yes or no question. That way, you can listen for one of two simple words in their response, rather than having to translate a longer, nuanced answer.
If you don’t know much about your target language, you’re basically taking Google’s word for it when you translate your sentences and show them to another person. Most of the time, the app provides solid, reasonable translations, but it never hurts to run a double check if you get a response from a speaker that doesn’t add up with what you think you said.
For example, take a look at the English sentence I used in the image above, and then see what reverse translate produced in the image below. The meaning changed quite a bit over just one word!
Translating Tip: Once the app translates something for you, you can click the three dots in the translation box to get a drop down menu with the option to reverse translate. Double check to see if the output matches what you’re trying to communicate. If it doesn’t you can rephrase your idea to find a better match. In the case above, “I like video games” came out just fine.
Be Patient And Positive
Language barriers can be frustrating, but if you don’t try to overcome them, you can miss out on exciting experiences and worldwide friendships. Smile, and be patient. Native speakers will know that you’re doing your best with the tools you have at hand, and when you have that thrilling moment of smooth, clear communication, you’ll be glad you put forth the effort.
Do you have additional tips for using Google Translate on the road? Or do you prefer another app entirely? Share your thoughts with our community in the comments below, and help us communicate with our neighbors the world over.
Not a fan of Google Translate? See if SayHi on iOS is a better fit for you!
Image Credits: Travel bag Via Shutterstock