How reliable are smartphone camera translation apps?

May 15, 2019
How reliable are smartphone camera translation apps?

When you spend your 9-5 (or your 5-9 – after all, isn’t one of the benefits of freelancing being able to choose your own hours?) providing professional translation services, it can be easy to dismiss and even deride the largely inferior results of machine translation systems. However, the technology is advancing rapidly and does have its place within the wider translation industry. 

Convenience over translation quality

It is unrealistic, for example, to expect someone to sit in a restaurant while on holiday and engage a professional translation agency to read the menu for them between the time they sit down and the time the server arrives to take their order. Yes, machine translation isn’t yet good enough to be a reliable provider of business translation services, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its uses. 

Sticking with the restaurant example, the modern diner has a range of smartphone camera translation apps available to them to aid in their gastronomic experience. This opens up the possibility of their going to a restaurant where they don’t just not speak the language but where they aren’t even familiar with the writing system, and yet still being able to order competently and choose something they like. Assuming, of course, that the app in question is up to the task! 

Camera translation app roundup 

The experts over at GearBrain recently decided to put such apps to the test, with some interesting results…

The Google Translate app presented some rather indecisive word choices when Chinese writing was viewed through the camera, with small hand movements seemingly changing the app’s mind about which words it was looking at. However, taking a picture within the app and using Google’s AI cloud for translation proved much more effective – enough to aid with ordering from a menu, where the read aloud functionality can also come in handy.  The app’s handwritten Chinese translation was somewhat more hit and miss, but for a freely available app it’s certainly not a bad tool to help holidaymakers get by. 

The Waygo translation app produced better results, giving more detailed and accurate descriptions than Google Translate. Even in instances where the grammar wasn’t perfect, the app provided sufficient information for a decent understanding of the menu in question. The app translates between Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English, making it a great option for those with Asia in their sights for their next vacation. It provides 10 translations for free per day, before users need to switch to the paid version. 

GearBrain also tested Microsoft Translator, another free camera translation app. It performed much the same as Google Translate, though with neater positioning of translations over the original text – a surprisingly important consideration if you need to know which specific part of the menu to point to when ordering! 

Translation apps versus human translation 

The results of GearBrain’s smartphone camera translation app tests certainly aren’t going to give any professional translators sleepless nights worrying about their careers being eclipsed by mobile technology. It seems that there is plenty of room for a translation company such as Tomedes and translation apps such as those tested to coexist, each serving a specific purpose and client base. Translation remains a complex undertaking and one that only human skill can finesse perfectly for now. 

Final thoughts

Have you used smartphone camera translation apps while abroad to help you navigate a language that you don’t speak? What were your experiences of them and are there any that you would particularly recommend (or otherwise)? You can leave a comment below to share your views with your fellow translation professionals around the world.

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.

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