When you need to translate one language to another, there are lots of technology options that can help. In this week’s Hive Five, we’re looking at five of the best translation tools, based on your nominations.
Translation image from Shutterstock.
Most people are already familiar with Google Translate. It works relatively well, is integrated with Google’s other products, like Chrome’s auto-translation feature in-browser, and is used in multiple Android apps that hand off to the built-in Translate app for translation tasks. It supports dozens of languages, and takes the hassle out of figuring out which language you’re reading thanks to its auto-detection. You can translate entire web pages or documents easily as well. It’s not perfect, and it definitely falls down when tackling complicated sentences and context, but it’s still one of the best free, web-accessible and mobile-accessible options available.
Bing Translator, a Microsoft product, is the translation engine embedded into Windows Phone, and it also has the distinction of being the last major translation engine on the web with a free API, so developers rely on it often to power their in-app translation features (Google makes developers pay for access.) It also supports dozens of languages, has auto-detection built-in, can translate web pages or uploaded documents, and offers the ability for users to vote translations up or down depending on their accuracy. It has spoken word features for some languages but not all, and it offers bookmarklets to use Bing Translator in any browser quickly at the click of a button. One place Bing Translate really stands out is the OCR and text-recognition features in its Windows Phone app — you can hold the app up to unfamiliar text, even if it’s in a non-Latin script, and the app will translate it right there on the screen for you to read.
Linguee is a translation dictionary and search engine rather than a translation service. While it won’t translate documents or web pages for you, you can type in words in languages you don’t understand and see meanings, contextual translations and other documents around the web so you can get a feel for how it’s used. It also doesn’t offer the spoken word capabilities of other services, so it’s probably not best used for quick words or phrases that you may encounter elsewhere online. It is, however, useful for people who have texts to translate themselves, or people learning another language who need a little help with tricky words or phrases. If you need a quick, convenient translation tool, this isn’t it — but if you’re looking for a real dictionary or vocabulary tool that also gives you rich context, Linguee is very helpful. You can read more about the service on its about page.
WordLens is the brainchild of the folks at Quest Visual, recently acquired by Google, so expect to see some of its features rolled into Google Translate in the future. WordLens made waves back in 2010 because its iPhone and Android apps were some of the first to offer real-time, camera-based translations — where you just hold your device up to an unfamiliar language, and have it re-rendered in your native language right in front of your eyes. When it was new, it was the first time anyone had seen anything like it, and the apps still work remarkably well. They’re not perfect of course, but they can be useful for reading street signs, menus and other printed documents that you need to muddle through. As a result of being acquired by Google, WordLens is now free, and anyone can download the apps for Android, for iOS, or even for Google Glass for free. It still only supports a few languages, but it’s completely free and a useful tool.
A Trained Human Translator
At the end of the day, automatic and machine translation tools and dictionaries all fall down when compared to a trained human translator who has spent years studying and truly understanding the languages you need to translate. No algorithm or programmed resource — at least not yet — has been able to appropriately capture context, meaning, tone and even inflection the way a human being can if they know multiple languages. As long as languages are what they are — human methods for communication — it will be very difficult to come up with a machine or automatic tool that will translate them perfectly. If you want to learn a language yourself, we have plenty of great tools and tips to help you start down that road.
Want to make the case for your own personal favourite, even if it wasn’t included in the list above? Speak to us about what you use and why you use it in the comments.