a street with signs and signs on it

Travel must have? Without a doubt.

Even the savviest of travellers occasionally find themselves in a language conundrum. Perhaps it’s looking for directions on road signs in a foreign alphabet, or reading off a menu in an authentic local restaurant without any English spoken, but at some point in your travels  – a quick translator comes in handy. The solution is on your phone.

This summer, Google further refined the Google Translate app’s “instant’ feature, and without even needing a phone signal or data, you can instantly translate a language, even if you don’t know what language it is…

a street with signs and signs on itHow It Works: Instant, Scan, Import

If you open the Google Translate app and tap “camera”, three options will appear: instant, scan or import. Just like Google Lens, if you simply point your phone at the text you’d like to translate, a translation will instantly appear on your screen, over the original text. You’ll see the translation in your language direct above where the letters would be, in a font size to match up perfectly.

The coolest part? Even if you don’t know what language you’re looking at, Google’s AI will figure it out on the fly. And yes, it now works without a wifi signal or data turned on!

Here’s a before and after, for someone translating English to Spanish… a phone showing a yellow sign

And then instantly…

a phone with a sign on the screen

If that’s too futuristic, you can scan a menu, sign or anything else, and select which parts you’d like translated. Finally, if you have something you’ve taken a picture of, you can translate that as well, selecting any area of text with your finger.a close-up of a passport

And finally, you can just import any old picture and drop it in, or simply write the text for instant translation.

The former can be a handy move if you’re trying to communicate with someone by passing your phone, typing something in your native language, and having it translated into theirs, then allowing them to follow suit the other way around.

Don’t Forget About Live Audio Too

Google Translate also allows you to translate audio in near real time, just by having someone speak into your phone. You simply tap the “voice” or conversation button, and every time you tap, it will give you an audio and visual read out and translation of what the other person has said. There’s a cool video above, demonstrating the feature from the launch of the Google Pixel Buds. The feature is not new, but it’s still cool.

I don’t speak the language…

There’s really no excuse for “not speaking the language” in 2019. The new and improved “live” mode works for at least 88 languages, so you’re pretty much bound to be covered even if you’re in a country with no phone service – at least – as long as you have Google Translate downloaded on your phone…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Used this app in Peru last week and it was incredibly helpful. One fyi, when scanning you want to limit the amount of text/items. When trying to translate an entire menu page with about 30 items and descriptions the app got hung up.

  2. This is one of the most incredible travel apps. I have used it in Japan, Malaysia, and China. Translating a menu, signs, and medicine labels while shopping in China and Indonesia to make sure we were buying what we needed. I have even had a very fun conversation with some Japanese locals at a bar in Tokyo thanks to this app. I download the local language before any trip. It should be on any travelers phone.

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