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How to Talk to the World Through Free Translation Apps

by Mary Sewell

Need to have a conversation in a language you don’t know, make sense of a printed sign, or quickly translate a message? With Google and Apple revving their machine-learning engines in their Google Translate and Apple’s Translate apps, there’s a whole new world of communication possibilities in your pocket. Keep in mind that computer interpretation is not perfect. You may get some awkward translations (and stares). Third-party apps may be more in-depth. But these freebies can provide a general sense of things and become learning aids. Here’s a quick tour.

Pick Your Translator

Google Translate is in its 15th year and available on the web as a Chrome browser extension and as an Android and iOS app. Last year, Apple released its Translate app for the iPhone and added it to last month’s iOS 15 update for the iPad. For simple translations in Google Translate, far left, or Apple’s Translate, picks the languages you want to use and then type or speak the words you want to translate. Credit…Far gone, Google; near left, Apple. Google Translate supports more than 100 languages, while the version from Apple handles 11. Depending on the app and language, you may need an internet connection unless the content is downloaded offline.

Translation Apps

Audio pronunciation or other features may not be available for some languages. And read the app’s privacy policy if you have data-sharing concerns. Google Translate, far left, and Apple’s Translate have a Conversation mode for bilingual chats between two people. Far gone, Google; near left, Apple. Google Translate and Apple Translate are relatively easy to use. Just tap open the app and choose the languages you want to translate between. Enter text or say it aloud to get the translation through the screen and speaker. Both apps support a Conversation mode, where you can carry out a bilingual chat (in a supported language) with someone as the app automatically translates. And you can save favorite phrases for later reference in both apps.

See It and Read It

Google Translate and the Google Lens visual search tool can use your phone’s camera to scan and translate the text on signs, in books, within photographs, and in other printed matter. Open the camera app, point it at the text you want to convert and tap the Translate button. Apple’s Live Text feature, new with iOS 15, offers similar abilities. Point the camera at the text and tap the text icon in the bottom-right corner of the text when a yellow frame appears around the words. Select the words to convert and tap Translate from the pop-up menu on the net. You can translate text into photos the same way.

Apple’s Live Text tool in iOS 15 can recognize words in images and provide translation services. Credit…Apple
Translating in Other Apps You’ll find that the baked-in powers of translation extend to other compatible apps, too. For example, in Google Translate on an Android phone, tap the Menu icon in the top-left corner, choose Settings, and enable the Tap to Translate function. When you find the text you want to convert, highlight the words, tap the Translate option in the pop-up menu, and select the language you wish.

When you select text in certain apps (like the NASA app shown here) and tap Translate from the pop-up menu, Google Translate converts the selection to tyour chosen supported language. Far left, NASA; near left, Google. Apple’s Translate converts incompatible text apps on iOS devices (like the Safari browser) and can replace text you’ve typed with a translated version. Select the text you want to convert, and from the menu above, tap Translate; you may need to tap the arrow at the end of the menu to get to that option. When the full Translate menu appears, you can see and hear the translation and choose one of several options, including Replace with Translation. Tap the address bar in the Safari browser for an option to translate websites into other languages.

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