Technology has taken some major strides to break down language barriers in recent times, with translation software from giants such as Google and Microsoft employing some clever tricks.
Thanks to the likes of ‘neural machine translation’ tech – the system Google has been trumpeting lately – the Babel Fish skills of these sort of apps have never been stronger. This had led to features like a camera mode – that’s where you simply point your phone camera at a sign to see an instant translation of the words on-screen.
But which are the very best apps in this category? That’s the question we’re answering here, and the good news is that the top performing apps are free (although some have in-app purchases, and one of the apps in this article has a paid-for pro version as well as a freebie offering).
Anyhow, without further ado, cast your eyes over this platter of top-notch apps, any of which could be a massive boon on your next holiday or business trip.
1. Google Translate
Platforms: Android, iOS | Languages supported: 103 | Features: Conversation mode, camera mode, tap to translate
Google is a heavyweight when it comes to the translation game, with some serious technology powering its free Android and iOS apps. Recent advances in machine learning have meant that Google Translate is coming somewhere near the powers of a human translator, the company claims, with ‘neural machine translation’ tech now offering powerful translation chops from English to 30 other languages (initially only Chinese was supported).
The end result speaks for itself (ahem). Google Translate offers the ability to translate text to different languages (that you’ve typed in, or copied from an app using the handy ‘tap to translate’ feature), or you can use the split-screen ‘conversation mode’ to directly translate speech in order to converse with someone in a foreign language (32 languages are supported with this mode).
Even when you’re offline, the app is still capable of translating 52 languages. Perhaps one of the coolest features, though, is being able to use your camera to look at a sign or menu written in one of 30 languages, then have the app magically transform this into English with impressive accuracy.
Featuring high quality speech recognition and translation routines, this is a powerful, neat, free piece of software that you shouldn’t be without when it comes to translation duties and travel in general.
2. Microsoft Translator
Platforms: Android, iOS, Windows | Languages supported: 60+ | Features: Conversation mode, camera mode, group chats
Microsoft’s rival translation app is free and supports over 60 different languages, with most of them (45) coming complete with spoken translations, so you can have the translation read out loud (and not just presented in text).
The app also boasts a split-screen mode which allows two individuals to hold a conversation in different languages, with their responses being translated to each other. And much like Google Translate, there’s a camera mode so you can decipher signs and menus (although this didn’t work quite as well for us as Google’s effort).
Microsoft Translator also facilitates translating conversations across multiple devices for group chats, a very nifty extra. The app further allows for downloading language packs so you can get translations when offline, and it offers a very impressive overall level of both speech recognition and translation accuracy.
Platforms: Android, iOS, Windows, Mac | Languages supported: 92 | Features: Offline mode, real-time conversations
The basic (free) iTranslate app offers a library of 92 languages and some impressive translation chops, along with wide platform support (with the mobile apps complemented by Windows and Mac software).
You can translate text or spoken words in any of those languages, and get the resulting translation spoken out loud (text-to-speech) in 42 of them. The software also keeps a full history of translations you’ve made, so you can refer back to them, and you can mark often-used phrases as favorites.
It can occasionally be a little glitchy when processing spoken words, taking a little time to do so, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Also note that the app is ad supported, and will pop up an advert every now and then.
You’ll need to upgrade to the Pro version of iTranslate in order to benefit from the convenience of real-time voice conversations, and with this you also get an offline mode, along with verb conjugations (and of course the adverts are banished).
The paid app will set you back £4.99 ($6.50) per month, although there is a free trial to give it a spin first. Also note that iTranslate usually has deals running, and at the time of writing we were offered a year’s subscription for the cheaper rate of £3.33 ($4.30) per month.
Platforms: Android, iOS | Languages supported: 23 | Features: Camera mode, live translation, phrasebook, travel tips
This free app is a little different because alongside its core translation capabilities it provides a broad umbrella of useful features for those travelling abroad. TripLingo supports voice translation across 23 languages, with a simple instant translation system that allows for two participants to have a conversation with their responses spoken out loud. It’s fairly accurate, and further languages are supported with text output only.
You also get an Image Translator in the same vein as Google and Microsoft’s camera efforts whereby you snap a picture of a sign or menu, then get a translation. In this case, you don’t get an on-screen translation, rather it’s supplied in the form of simple text. It isn’t quite as good as the aforementioned big two, but it does the job.
However, the real major bonus here is the huge amount of stuff you get on top of this, including a full phrasebook, a breakdown of essential phrases (including slang), flashcards and other basic language learning material, along with cultural information like etiquette and travel tips. There’s even safety information provided such as emergency service numbers and contact details of embassies. Note that all these extras are only supported for 13 languages.
All this goes to form a really well-rounded translation and travel app which is worth considering simply because of all the additional elements on board. If you get really stuck language barrier-wise, this app also has a novel live translation capability powered by a human staff member – although it costs to use this functionality (this is one of several in-app purchase options for those who don’t mind forking out a bit of cash).
5. SayHi Translate
Platforms: Android, iOS | Languages supported: 46 | Features: Conversation mode, multiple dialects
If you want a very simple yet powerful translation app, look no further than SayHi. The software is free and supports 46 languages, and it couldn’t be easier to use.
You select two languages, press the mic button, dictate a sentence and then it’s automatically translated (and in the majority of cases read out loud – most languages have text-to-speech support). The person you’re conversing with can then do the same thing in their language, with the conversation tracked in a simple chat view.
Translations are nicely accurate and there are several nifty features here, including the ability to select different dialects of, say, Spanish or Arabic (if you include these different dialects, 90 languages are supported in total). You can also choose to have a female or male voice when it comes to the app’s speech, and slow down the talking speed of that voice for better clarity if needed.
But there are no other options beyond these. The idea is to keep things simple, and this certainly works for those who want a streamlined app to facilitate conversations across a good number of languages. The app is available for iOS and also Android, but note for the latter you’ll need to install via Amazon Underground (because the app isn’t on the Play Store, but rather it’s part of Amazon’s Android app offerings).