New Google Translate
Credit: Google

Google Translate has long been one of our favorite translation tools, but its new itineration, released last week, seems like something from the year 2025. Without even a data connection, the app can now convert text seen through your camera lens from one language to another, in real time, right before your eyes. Like magic. But it’s not the year 2025, and the technology shows. Here’s why we’re at once obsessed with, and disappointed by, the app’s ambitious move.

Google has been experimenting with real-time, photo-based translation technology nearly a year now—it started with the acquisition of standalone app Word Lens last May, which it quickly integrated into Translate and even Google Glass. The upgrade pushed last week, therefore, is subtle but significant. It means that you no longer need to take a photo to translate what your camera is seeing, and you no longer need a data connection—both impressive feats for travelers who need an answer about the signs they’re seeing, and fast.

But the ambition isn’t met with complete success. A longtime issue with Word Lens hasn’t been rectified—suggested translations jump from one to the next as the app struggles to identify words as you hold the phone over the text, which makes it hard to absorb the meaning. Another challenge: you need to hold the camera quite steady for the app to work. As for the accuracy, we’ll let the image above speak for itself. Try reading the bottom left panel, a supposed translation from Spanish, or the bottom right, translated from Russian, before comparing to the original English text above. You can see there’s still a long way to go.

Is the app a failure? Far from it. Google Translate still offers the best free service around, with downloadable language packs for dozens of countries, instant spoken and written translations that automatically detect the language for you, and perhaps the most comprehensive list of compatible languages of any translation app around. This is just a peek at what’s possible before it’s fully ready for the spotlight.

Nikki Ekstein is an Assistant Editor at Travel + Leisure and part of the Trip Doctor news team. Find her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.