Google Translate was updated to version 2.5 of the Android app earlier this month, so we thought we'd take it out for a test run, and try out its language comprehension chops. The app is certainly great for those occasions when you need a quick translation of a few words or a single sentence, and it deals with more than 64 languages.
However, if you're off on a trip to a non-English speaking country with an unreliable Internet connection, you'll need something more powerful, and should invest in some bona fide translator software.
Fast and easy to use
You start by choosing which languages to translate "To" and "From" via a drop down list. At the bottom of your screen you'll find one to three icons representing the three input methods (text, voice, or camera), depending on which language you choose. The app translates words and phrases very quickly. It took less than a second, much like Google Translate's web app, to translate sentences such as "Where's the nearest drug store?" and "How much does that scarf cost?" from English into all languages.
This is especially helpful for someone like me who has to drop the occasional English word while speaking in another language (Chinese, in my case). I can just use Google Translate to quickly look up how to say that unknown word.
Like most Google apps, Translate is fast and stable. It didn't crash on me once during the week I spent with it.
Google Translate accepts content via text, voice, or image recognition. For text input, you can either type in the words or import text messages. It'd be awesome if the app eventually supported email or other text files. Still, text input is the fastest, most reliable way to translate anything with this app.
Voice recognition is a time-saver, though it's not as reliable as text input. Like Google Voice, it accurately translates spoken words when you speak clearly in a quiet room.
I enlisted some multi-lingual colleagues to give this a spin. One person asked "Como esta usted?" which the app correctly interpreted as "How are you?" in Spanish. Another used a rough German accent (her words) to say "Ich verstehe kein deutsch" which the app correctly translated as "I do not understand German." I had a harder time with Mandarin Chinese as it couldn't distinguish 'zuo' (to do) from 'duo' (more) – the two words rhyme but have slightly different starting sounds.
The optical character recognition (OCR) feature lets you take pictures of text, and then you can use your finger to highlight words to translate. This feature is still rather clumsy. From what I can tell only alphanumeric languages accept OCR input, so you won't find languages like Japanese and Persian.
I tested OCR input at an Italian restaurant. I snapped a picture of a couple inches of the menu, brushed my finger over a couple words – "la coppa" – and the app recognised the input correctly and translated it as "cup." I had less luck with another phrase – "fior di latte" – which the app kept translating as "man." The problem with OCR input is that you have to brush a finger over the phrase you want to translate, which I found difficult to manage precisely even with my tiny fingers.
Google Translate is an impressive free app for casual translation requirements, and is very handy to have when you just need to translate a couple words or a short sentence. That said, text input is still the best way to use the app, as voice recognition isn't quite as reliable, and OCR input just isn't accurate enough to rely on. Hopefully as Google hones the app further, this situation will change.