Lost in Translation? Take a Shortcut

Traveling abroad gives you a great opportunity to use your foreign-language skills. Many business and leisure travelers, however, don’t have the time to brush up on the native tongue of their destination.

Advances in speech-recognition software in the past 2 years now allow travelers to let their smartphones do the translating—and often the speaking—for them. Google and SpeechTrans have smartphone applications that record snippets of dialogue that are in the user’s native language and translate them into the equivalent spoken phrase or statement in the foreign language of his/her choice. These apps then can translate words from the foreign language back to the user’s native one with no translation delay, acting as a proxy for a live translator.

Google’s free app, which is called Google Translate, comes with spoken translation in 15 languages and text-to-text translation for 63 languages. SpeechTrans ($20) has the speech-to-speech feature for 17 languages, a handful of additional languages for text-to-speech and a translation feature for Facebook chat. Both are available for Apple iPhones and iPads and, at press time, both companies were expected to offer apps for the Android market by the end of summer.

Both apps claim about 90 percent accuracy. We found them much more reliable for phrases of seven words or less, such as, “When is the next train to Frankfurt?” Of course, both rely on a clear signal and could expose you to roaming charges, depending on your cellular-service plan.