A Brief Disclaimer
I’m fully aware that many of my reviews come across as a bit effusive. For me, it’s far easier to review apps that I love rather than type out scathing critiques of the crapware that junks up most of the App Store’s virtual shelves. To be fair, witty criticism has its place in tech reviews and can certainly be as enjoyable to read as it is to write; however, I usually prefer writing on topics I feel passionate about, and I’m simply more inspired by apps that wow than by those that disappoint. All of that to say, the following review is another that could easily be filed under the heading: Glowing Reviews the Developer’s Marketing Team Will Love. In my defense, Google Translate deserves every ounce of praise it receives. And here’s why…
Bridging the Cultural Divide
Since July of 2010 I have been living in Kunming, China, a beautiful city in the southern province of Yunnan. As you might guess, Mandarin is not my native language, and although I’m currently studying Chinese, the language barrier often becomes a frustrating obstacle during my day-to-day life. I hoped my iPhone would be a useful tool in overcoming this obstacle when I first moved to Kunming, and I purchased several apps that promised to help with translation and language learning during my transition into a new culture. I tried Pleco, Jibbigo, a Lonely Planet app and several others, but none of them turned out to be as useful or convenient as the Google Translate app. What’s more, several of these apps cost between ten and twenty dollars, while Google’s app is—you guessed it—free. When an app is significantly better than its competitors and significantly cheaper (or in this case free), deciding which to use becomes ridiculously easy.
Since installing it a few hours after its debut in the App Store, Google Translate has not only carved itself a permanent spot on my home screen, but it has also become one of the most useful pieces of software that I own. Sure it does the easy stuff like translate individual words from English to Chinese and vice versa, but it also translates long paragraphs of text in an instant with stunning reliability. It allows queries to be input via speech or text and spits out results in both Chinese characters and Pinyin (the English alphabet’s phonetic equivalent for Chinese characters), and provides an option to play the result as an audio file spoken by a native Chinese speaker. Since Chinese is a tonal language, this last feature is actually indispensable. In a language where the only difference between saying mother and horse is the rise or fall of your voice, you don’t want to have to guess at proper pronunciation. The amount of functionality Google has crammed into this app, packaged within a remarkably simple and usable interface, is impressive to say the least. And did I mention all this goodness comes at the unbelievable price of free?
Two Huge Advantages
Google Translate also meets the two requirements that are simply a must for any translation app if it aspires to transcend beyond the level of an interesting conversation piece to the point where it’s actually usable in real life cross-cultural situations: speed and accuracy.
Translation apps have to be fast. I don’t mean just relatively snappy. I’m talking blazing almost instantaneous. Nothing kills the usefulness of an app in real life more than having to wait on it, and this is never more true than during a conversation with another human being. Imagine trying to negotiate the purchase of a few vegetables at the local market when your lack of language causes an unexpected roadblock. You fish into your pocket for your iPhone; a few seconds go by as you unlock the screen and jump into a language app that promises to save the day. In this situation, anything that takes more than a few additional seconds might as well take minutes or hours. Impatience quickly becomes frustration and apathy, and you find yourself walking home empty-handed—there won’t be any sweet potatoes for dinner tonight. I find myself in these kinds of situations almost everyday, and here is what I’ve discovered: Google Translate is lightning quick. I’ve been using it for over a month, and I’m still surprised at how fast it is. Where other apps drag their feet, Google Translate flies, and believe me, it makes a world of difference.
Just as important as speed is the accuracy of the translation an app provides. What good is a quick response if the answer you’re given is incorrect? If a translation is off by even a little, the potential for cross-cultural blunders abounds. Now there are still limitations to present day technology, and no existing software can truly replace a human translator who is fluent in both languages. However, Google Translate comes closer to true translation than any other application I’ve used. It’s so effective that I can confidently copy and paste queries and results back and forth between Google’s app and my text messaging app, allowing me to text whole conversations with Chinese friends, reading and writing entire paragraphs of Chinese characters I don’t understand or even recognize. I’m sure it’s not always a perfect translation, but it certainly gets the job done.
The Wrap Up
We live in an increasingly global society, and the need for effective tools to help us navigate the language barrier that exists is very real. At present, the marketplace is chock-full of applications promising to do just that. However, from my own experience, Google Translate outshines them all. It has worked wonders for me here in China, but even more amazing is the fact that Google’s app actually works the same magic with over fifty of the world’s most widely used languages. Sure, you may know how to write kangaroo in Korean, but where do you turn when you need to speak it in Haitian Creole? Not to worry, Google Translate has you covered. So go ahead and start your downloads people—it just doesn’t get much better than this.