If all you’ve ever done with Google Translate is copy-and-paste text, you’re missing out. The app can translate signs and menus visually, save your most-used phrases, and more.
Download your language before you leave home
Even if you’re pretty sure you’ll have a data connection at your destination, it only takes a minute to download your target language in the Google Translate app.
Just tap the name of the language on the main screen; it may say “Detect language.” From that screen, you can tap the download icon next to each language you might need on the go. (Here are Google’s official directions.)
Now you can translate that customs form while you’re flying over the ocean. Or translate things all over Paris when you think the French cell network sucks but really you just forgot to turn on international roaming. Ask how I know.
Use the camera for signs and menus
This feature is like magic. Hit the little camera button, and hold your phone between your eyeballs and the sign, menu, or form you’re trying to read. Google will translate words on the fly, inserting all-caps English in place of the other language’s words.
Look through your screen in real time, or tap the shutter button to freeze-frame the image. This mode is perfect for menus or lists: after taking the photo, you can highlight text with your finger and get a translation of just those words.
Unfortunately the camera isn’t great with large blocks of text. I tried reading Spanish magazines this way, and found that the app translated each line of text individually. In narrow columns of magazine text, that meant it would only translate a few words at a time, and completely misunderstand any words that were hyphenated and broken onto two lines.
Our parenting editor Michelle Woo, looking for cold medicine in Tokyo, noted that Google Translate wasn’t great at helping her decipher the labels, but it did help her rule out the packages that mentioned sinus or nasal symptoms, which were not the medicines she was looking for.
Save phrases you might need again
If you just type in a word or phrase, Google translates it without you having to press an extra button. But if you actually do hit enter, the app will save that phrase and its translation in your history.
Star your favourites, and you’ll be able to find them easily in the “Saved” tab at the bottom of the screen.
Don’t trust it with anything super important
Google Translate is handy as a helper, but errors are definitely still possible. Our Tokyo team found that it was great with menus, but not good enough at the drugstore to help them choose what to buy. “In the end, an employee who spoke some English showed me the right medicine,” Michelle says.
A recent study found that Google Translate was pretty good at translating hospital discharge instructions from English into Spanish and Chinese, but that every now and then it would be disastrously wrong—for example, telling a patient to keep taking their medicine when the instructions actually said to stop taking it. In tricky situations, be sure to find a human who can translate crucial information.