App of the month: Let’s hear it for translation apps

Making yourself understood in a foreign country is one of the last remaining barriers to easy international travel, and even that’s being broken down thanks to instant translation apps – but do they take the fun and adventure out of travelling? And is translation about more than just words? We try to answer the question with our app of the month column…

OK, here’s a challenge for adventurous travellers everywhere. Work with an Italian waitress, using sign language and a few guesses, to establish the meaning of acciughe on the menu from which you’re trying to order.

This challenge assumes that her English is basic in the extreme, but nevertheless better than your Italian. But hey, you’re on holiday, and you have nowhere special to be for the next couple of hours…

That’s what happened to us deep in rural Italy. The setting was idyllic; the restaurant favoured by hordes of locals who arrived later than we did (though from where, we had no idea; there wasn’t a property for miles around).

The answer to the linguistic puzzle, we were able to establish, was anchovies*, and the food they were served in was sublime. In the anchovy incident, a bond was formed; all parties enjoyed the exchange; lives were enriched, and we were welcomed back to the same restaurant twice more. How much less personal would it have been if one of our party had just pushed a smartphone into the waitress’ face to show her what we wanted to eat, instead of working with her to understand the menu.

When it goes wrong
Of course the technique doesn’t always work; there’s the stand-up comic’s line about the man who visited a Spanish restaurant and tried to order steak and mushrooms, but got an umbrella and two tickets to a bullfight…

However, there are times when a five-minute sign language pantomime is inappropriate, or just too slow. The notion of standing at the front of a queue of would-be travellers at a railway station trying to mime ‘Turkistan’ to a bemused Kazakh ticket-office attendant illustrates the point perfectly.

So when being understood, and quickly, is important, you really do need a translation app – especially if you’re venturing in to a new country, or seeking advice and help within a startup community using alternative languages. It will do much to take away the uncertainty not only in the words used, but also any that might be injected unintentionally by poor pronunciation, such as attempting to tell a waiter in Paris that you’re very hungry, but instead informing him that your companion is a big woman. No wonder he looks bemused.

 Translation apps for iOS
For iPhone use, we like iTranslate Voice, which is a sort of multi-lingual Siri, fluent in more than 40 languages. Works fine, so long as you’re connected to the Internet.

Speaking of languages, that’s the name of another iPhone app. Not quite so flexible or far-reaching as iTranslate, Languages is an offline dictionary containing the main European languages, so we would have been able to look up acciughe, though not have heard it pronounced.

Translation apps for Android
Microsoft Translator is good for offline use, and also features 40-plus languages as well more than one way to have your phrase translated – speech detection and keyboard amongst them.

Another good one to look out for is Translate Voice, which records what you’re saying and then plays it back in an alternate language.

Now there’s a novelty
Google Translate, which is a free download, has the ability to read and translate text on signs and documents in real time, so long as you can tell it which language you’re translating from, and which you’d like it to translate into. However, a word of caution: don’t rely on it too heavily When we tried the app it persistently translated the French phrase ‘salle à manger’ as ‘room to eat’. Although that’s not exactly wrong, the pukka online version came back with the more correct ‘dining room’. Therefore, if you’re in a delicate negotiation, don’t rely on the software to understand the nuances of what you’re trying to say. It may not, and, what’s worse, you won’t realise that it hasn’t done… (On the other hand, it was spot on with acciughe).

Don‘t forget the money
It would be wrong to let anyone think that words are the only thing that need translating; for a tech startup venturing over international borders being able to work in different currencies is equally vital – one might argue even more so. That’s where expense manager app Solo Expenses comes into its own. It’s been around since 2003, continuously evolving and developing, and has the power to work in any number of currencies. To get it to work in the currency you want to deal with is simplicity itself; just tell it before you record the expense.

Remember, for any startup, and for tech ones in particular, understanding the money is critical. Failure to be a thorough expense manager, recording the spend on anything associated with the business, means you’ll get a skewed picture of how well it’s performing. That could lead you out onto the thin ice of potential business failure. For that reason, understanding your business finance translates into the ability to make fact-based business decisions – which is as important as speaking the right language.

*Another Italian word for the same fish is Alici, as Italian food expert Kyle Phillips explains. The difference can be in size, or how they’re presented for sale.

Picture: © Paulus Rusyanto |