You’d love to see the world, but fear holds you back. You’re afraid of being isolated in a foreign country, unable to speak the language. How are you going to communicate? Charades? Well, stop worrying, and book those tickets! Here are 12 futuristic translation apps and devices for travelers in 2017 to help you get your point across.
This post was originally published in 2016. It has been updated for accuracy and to include new apps and devices.
Best Translation Apps: Google Translate
When it comes to translation apps, Google Translate is obviously the elephant in the room — and for good reason. It supports more languages than the competition, and its comprehensive feature set makes it especially well-suited for travelers.
Languages: Google Translate offers varying degrees of support for 103 languages:
- Type to translate: 103 languages
- Offline support: 52 languages
- Real Time Video translation: 30 languages
- Camera Mode: 37 Languages
- Speech-to-speech translation: 32 languages
- Handwriting translation: 93 languages
See which features work with which languages here.
Cool Tricks: Translate signs, menus and other written content using your phone’s camera. Offline support for some languages, plus excellent integration with the Android operating system for translating text messages and websites.
Recently, Google added neural machine translation (NMT) for improved accuracy on some languages.
All this, and it’s free. Free is good.
Microsoft’s answer to Google Translate has long-suffered from second place syndrome. But that’s changed. Recent updates have made it into a worthy competitor with unique strengths of its own.
Cool Tricks: Microsoft Translator has free apps for Windows, iOs, and Android. Want a translation app for your Apple Watch? You need Microsoft Translator. The apps can translate speech, text, and images.
Microsoft Translator lacks Google Translate’s real time video translation feature. However, Microsoft wins a major point over Google with the superior design of its real-time conversation mode. According to Lifehacker, this feature makes it easier to have natural conversations with the people you meet on your travels.
Languages: Microsoft Translator only supports 60 languages, and not all features are available for all languages. For example, speech recognition and conversation mode are only available for 10 languages.
This page will tell you how much support a particular language has.
Best Translation Apps: iTranslate Voice
Got a smartphone? ITranslate Voice provides text-to-speech and voice-to-voice translation on both iOs and Android devices.
Cool Tricks: Translates what you say right after you say it. Some offline capabilities are available for specific languages. Save your most commonly used phrases in a personalized “phrasebook” for easy access.
Languages: iTranslate Voice supports 44 languages and dialects, but not all to the same degree. Find a comprehensive list of which features are available in which languages here.
iTranslate Voice doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as Google Translate. That said, this reviewer compared the two apps during a volunteer stint at a refugee camp. In his experience, iTranslate had better voice input and output. It’s definitely worth checking out!
Worth noting: Based on the reviews, there seems to be a software conflict between the latest version of this app and Android’s native voice recognition. So, if it doesn’t work, try contacting customer support before you throw in the towel.
Best Translation Apps: SayHi
SayHi is a “universal translator” for the iPhone and Kindle, offering speech-to-speech translation in 90 languages and dialects.
Cool tricks: You speak, SayHi translates. The app claims 95% accuracy for voice recognition. According to LapTopMag, “The spare and straightforward interface makes this app appealing.”
You can also program the voice used to be male or female, and set the speed to your liking.
Languages: SayHi features 90 languages and dialects, including an impressive list of Arabic dialects. Some languages are text-only, though. This page will show you a list of languages and supported features.
The downside? There’s no Android app available, and SayHi does require an internet connection.
Best Translation Apps: WayGo
Traveling to Asia? Waygo instantly translates Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters with no data connection required.
Cool Tricks: Translates Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters using the camera on your smartphone. Just point, shoot and translate!
Languages: Chinese, Japanese and Korean to English
Best Translation Apps: TripLingo
TripLingo combines an interactive phrasebook with an instant voice translator, along with other useful travel tools like emergency information, a currency converter, and a tip calculator.
Cool Tricks: TripLingo combines a translator with lots of handy extras. It includes language learning tools, cultural information, free international calls with wi-fi and more.
The translator even has formal, casual and slang translations for commonly used phrases.
Need additional help? The app can connect you to a real live human translator (for an additional fee, of course).
Right now, the company is focused on offering the app to organizations where employee travel is frequently required. But you can download it and use it as an individual, too.
Languages: TripLingo supports over 100 countries and offers instant voice translation in 42 languages.
Best Translation Apps: Speak & Translate
Cool Tricks: This is another app that focuses on speech-to-speech translations (but also provides text-only support for less common languages.) It’s thoroughly integrated with iCloud, so you can view your translation history on all of your Apple devices, and you can switch from one device to another mid-conversation.
One caveat for travelers: A data connection is required to use it.
Languages: Speak & Translate offers voice-to-voice translation for the following languages: Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Taiwan), Czech, Danish, Dutch (The Netherlands), English (Australian), English (Canada), English (India), English (UK), English (US), Finnish, French, French (Canada), Galician, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Moldavian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brazil), Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Spanish (Mexican), Swedish, Thai, Turkish.
There’s also text-only support available for additional languages. Find the details here.
How to Get It: Download it from the App Store.
Best Translation Apps: Papago
Planning a trip to Japan, China or Korea? You might want to check out Papago, a translation app that focuses exclusively on translating the “big 3” Asian languages (Korean, Japanese and Mandarin) to and from English.
Cool Tricks: When there’s more than one possible way to translate a word or a phrase, Papago asks users to choose between two different images to establish context. Helpful features for travelers include conversation mode, offline mode, and automatic currency conversion.
Languages: Korean, Chinese, Japanese and English
Best Translation Apps: Textgrabber
Textgrabber is an Optical Character Recognition app that “reads” text from images and offers translations.
Cool Tricks: Many of the other apps above offer image translation, but Textgrabber does more, making phone numbers, links, addresses, events and more easily clickable.
Languages: 100+ plus languages are offered with varying degrees of support. Find a complete list here.
How to Get It: Download it on the App Store here.
New Translation Devices for 2017: The ili
The ili is a wearable device that hangs around your neck and translates speech in real-time. You may remember ili’s unfortunate YouTube advertisement, which involved an actor using it to harass random Japanese girls for a kiss.
Poor advertising choices aside, it’s an interesting concept.
Languages: Spanish, Mandarin, and Japanese (eventually, the ili team will add French, Thai, Korean, Spanish, Italian and Arabic.)
Cool Tricks: Ili bills itself as the first wearable translator for travelers. It is lightweight, and does not require wifi to work.
However, ili’s translation capability is somewhat limited. The device focuses on travel-related situations like restaurants, shopping, and transportation. And the translation is all one-way, so the person you’re talking to may still need to burst into charades.
How to Get One: The ili made waves at tech conventions in 2016, but it’s still not available for sale yet. That said, they are taking pre-orders and the first devices are expected to ship in October 2017.
New Translation Devices for 2017: The Pilot
In 2016, a wearable translation device called the “Pilot” made waves in the tech world. It consists of two earpieces, one for each speaker, and a smartphone app.
Cool Tricks: Real time translation delivered right into your ear canal. Also doubles as earbuds for your music.
The Pilot does require Internet access, although Waverly Labs are working on offline support.
Tech journalists are comparing it to the BabelFish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That comparison seems a bit overblown to me. But perhaps I’m just being a curmudgeon.
Languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian
How to Get One: The Pilot is not for sale quite yet, but you can pre-order from their website. It was originally supposed to be released in May 2017, but it’s running behind, as these things do.
New Translation Devices for 2017: Travis the Translator
What’s the “Babel fish” of the moment? The latest, greatest device that’s supposed to rid us of language barriers forever?
It’s a handheld device called Travis the Translator. An Indiegogo campaign to fund its development raised $784,000.
Cool Tricks: Travis is not yet ready for prime time. When it is, it will be able to translate conversations in 80 languages, 20 of which will have offline support. And in theory, it least, it will fit into the palm of your hand.
And if it actually comes out when they say it will and works like they say it will? It will blow ili and the Pilot out of the water.
Languages: Travis will speak 80 languages, all of which are listed on its IndieGogo page.
How to Get One: You can preorder from IndieGoGo here.
Personally, I would expect the shipping date of September 2017 to be overly optimistic. Release dates for crowdfunding products usually are.
Are Translation Apps Worth It?
These apps may call themselves “universal translators,” but they aren’t. Not really. Have a choice between a trusted human translator or interpreter and a translation app? The human will always do a better job of translating your documents. Translation apps and devices are not 100% accurate. Please do not use them to negotiate business deals or legal matters in a language you are unfamiliar with.
That said, most travelers don’t have access to an interpreter. And most UK travelers don’t bother to learn much, if any, of the local language. For most of us, it’s a choice between amazing the locals with your technological savvy (even if the translations aren’t always right) and making a fool of yourself trying to communicate. If that’s the case? Embrace the future. Use an app!