Google’s making it easier to understand languages that you might not know, thanks to an update to its Translate app on Android and iOS. Two updated features improve your ability to navigate unfamiliar languages, whether they’re in printed form or being spoken aloud—and while they may be modest changes for Android users, owners of iOS devices will be getting these abilities for the very first time. For signs, menus, and other printed materials, Google’s added real-time visual translation. Previously, you had to take a picture of text you wanted to translate and wait for Google to perform its magic. In the latest update, simply tap the camera icon in the Translate app, point your phone’s camera at a sign, and you’ll see it show up translated, more or less instantly. Even better, your device can now do this without an Internet connection—great, considering that you can’t always depend on your smartphone being online while you’re abroad. It supports translating between English and French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

The Word Lens feature can be a little inconsistent; in one test it thought the black and white bars from a crosswalk sign were words, but it often gives you enough context to know what’s going on—though it does balk at idioms. For example, an attempt to translate a sign reading “chien lunatique,” which is essentially the French equivalent of a “beware of dog” sign, yielded the slightly less frightening “moody dog.” But overall, the translator functionality is still a step up from not knowing the language at all, and with street signs and menus, it can be decidedly faster than a phrasebook. The app still does depend on you telling it what language to look for—it’s not yet smart enough to figure that out.


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