Machine translation is hard. Fluent speakers sometimes spot howlers, and there are subtleties and nuances that even powerful computers cannot fathom— yet. But online and app-based translation is also getting better. Last December, Skype demonstrated a tool to enable live, instant English to Spanish translation on a video call. Windows Phone owners can sign up for the Translator Preview programme atskype.com. And there are several apps out there already that will stop you getting flummoxed on your next trip.
Android, iOS; free
The latest update to Google’s translation tool is a major one. Google’s 2014 purchase of the Word Lens app has been built in as a “visual translation” function. Point your smartphone camera at some text and an instant English translation appears on-screen. Visual translation currently supports 6 languages, including French, Italian and Russian, and works without a data connection. Simultaneous speech mode is another upgrade. Select a pair of languages, tap the mic symbol and Google automatically translates whatever it hears in either language into the other. Offline voice translation works on Android phones only. For iPhone users, Yandex Translate (free; translate.yandex.com) offers offline translation of Russian, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Android, iOS, Windows Phone; free
It’s hard to beat Google’s revamped app, but iTranslate still has plenty going for it. The interface is clear and simple, and there’s an option to save phrases for later—handy if you know the situations you’ll be finding yourself in ahead of time. You can type or speak English text and iTranslate converts into any of 80 languages, and will even speak the pronunciation back to you in several, including Chinese, Polish and Turkish. In a quiet room, its speech recognition was accurate during my test. The app requires an internet connection.