Feb 23, 2011

Google Translate's New iPhone App

Google has released a Google Translate app for the iPhone that includes a feature that allows you to speak in one language and have the app translate your words into another. I was curious to see how well this worked, so I spent a little bit of time yesterday testing the app. Here’s what I found:
  • The app works well for very short phrases. For anything longer than a few seconds, however, more often than not you either get gibberish or an error message.
  • Perhaps not surprisingly, the speech-to-translate feature works great if you’re speaking English. The app picked up every English phrase I said perfectly.
  • I don’t really speak any other Romance or Germanic languages, so I can’t vouch for how well the app picks up those. I can, however, vouch for the app’s ability to pick up the first line of “Ode to Joy” in German, whether spoken or sung (the remnants of my four-and-a-half years of German classes in high school and college). As for the several other lines of broken and, I’m sure, poorly accented German I threw at the app, the performance was so-so.
  • The real test was how the app performs for a language that’s completely different from English in terms of syntax, pronunciation, and grammar — in this case, Mandarin. I spoke to the app in Mandarin for about 10 minutes, asking and answering various everyday questions. The outcome was very mixed — the translations were surprisingly good for some phrases, but laughably horrible for others (though I must admit that it’s amazing the app picked up as much Mandarin as it did). For instance, when I asked, “What year were you born in?” in Mandarin, the app thought I was asking, “What year did you die in?” because the particular Mandarin phrase I used for “born” sounds somewhat similar to a phrase for “die”.
I’d say that currently the app is much more useful for native English speakers than for people whose first language is something other than English. For instance, if you were traveling in China and needed to find a restroom, you can speak the question into the app in English, and have it ask that question to a passerby in Mandarin. Just don’t expect the app to accurately translate what that passerby tells you. It’s not a universal translator yet.


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