Did you hear the one about the traveler who told a Parisian waitress that he was pregnant instead of full? He could have used a good translation app. Here’s what T+L tech correspondent Tom Samiljan uncovered while testing the latest tools throughout Europe and Asia.
Google Translate App
Credit: Felix Choo / Alamy

Google Translate

How it Works: Google will generate a written translation for anything that you type, speak, photograph, or draw on your touch screen. For nearly half of its supported languages, it also offers audio translations—and the number keeps growing. Bonus: a new feature listens for two languages at once, providing the spoken and text translations for both sides of a conversation in real time.

The Good: Google’s translations are incredibly comprehensive—if occasionally clunky. For example, a French sign saying “Cedez le passage” yielded the English “You do not have the priority.”

The Bad: When it comes to Asian characters, results can be nonsensical: on a Chinese menu, “egg- plant with basil” somehow became “nine eggplant.”

Number of Languages: 90, with 38 offering voice translations (at last count).

Off-Line Capability: Downloadable translation packs are available for 50 languages.

Overall Assessment: It may not be perfect, but we love the number of languages—and the price.

Free; Android, iOS


How it Works: This voice translator piles on the bells and whistles, offering several translations for nearly any given phrase—including formal, casual, and slang versions—as well as helpful phonetic guides. It also comes with instructional phrase books, audio lessons, and tip sheets on local etiquette. And if all else fails, it can connect you with a human translator for an extra fee ($24.99 for five minutes).

The Good: The phrase book’s varied translations give you a much more sophisticated sense of the language: French options for “I’m doing very well” ran the gamut from the formal “Je vais très bien” to the idiomatic “Ça roule” (literally “It’s rolling”).

The Bad: The cost. A free version exists, but it includes a mere 20 phrases per language.

Number of Languages: 23, from Arabic to Vietnamese.

Off-Line Capability: The phrase books and tip sheets work connection-free.

Overall Assessment: Great for business travelers, who can summon live support for nuanced translations in as little as 30 seconds.

$9.99 per month; Android, iOS


How it Works: Beyond translating typed and spoken phrases, this app lets you slow down (or speed up) the corresponding audio playback so that you can work on accurate pronunciation. You can also save translations for recurring reference by marking them as favorites or sending them to yourself in an e-mail. Tip: saving your translations in Evernote can help you create a personalized phrase book.

The Good: Translations were fast and accurate, and the time-saving ability to bookmark translations spares you from looking up the same phrase (e.g., “Is it spicy?”) over and over again.

The Bad: Phonetic English spellings for languages with different alphabets—like Hebrew or Arabic, for instance—were nearly impossible to pronounce.

Number of Languages: 92 total, with 27 offering voice translations.

Off-Line Capability: None.

Overall Assessment: Better for audio than text translations; too bad it doesn’t support a larger number of languages with voice.

$4.99; Android, iOS, Windows Phone


How it Works: Hold your phone’s camera up to anything written in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean and it will produce an English translation on the spot. The app stores a history of your translations and saves your favorites, so you can easily retrieve the directions to your hotel for a local cabdriver. You’re limited to 10 daily trans- lations with the free app; upgrade for unlimited use ($6.99).

The Good: The photo translation is the fastest and most accurate around. It had no problem identifying “eggplant with basil” on the same Chinese menu that stumped Google Translate.

The Bad: The interface is highly sensitive to movement and difficult to focus. Another annoyance: only being able to see a few translated words at a time.

Number of Languages: Three (Spanish and French are on the way).

Off-Line Capability: Everything but the supplemental language packs works off-line.

Overall Assessment: Without the ability to translate English into any other language, you’ll need other apps.

Free; Android, iOS