International travelers are often concerned about not understanding the local language of the country they're visiting, and with good reason.
While many people—especially those in the tourist trade–speak at least some English, there will always be times when being able to translate a menu or sign, or have a basic conversation, will come in extremely useful.
There's no replacement for actually learning the lingo, of course, but there are several apps that can help you understand what's going on in a pinch. Here are four of the best.
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Google's browser-based translation tool has been a winner for years, and the apps are even more useful for travelers. Both iPhone and Android versions work well offline, although you'll get greater accuracy and more options when you're connected to the Internet.
There's support for over 100 languages while online, with 50+ downloadable language packs to use when you don't have data. While Google has significantly reduced the size of those packs, they're still around 25MB each, so be sure to save them over Wi-fi ahead of time.
You can type out words and phrases, point your camera at menus and signs, speak, or write with your finger on the screen.
Likewise, you can receive the translation on the screen or read aloud, including a real-time spoken conversation mode to chat (at a very basic level) with someone who doesn't speak your language. Not all methods are supported for every language, however, and some only work online.
Other handy features include... translation of SMS messages and a phrasebook. Given it's free, there's really no reason not to install Google Translate on your phone or tablet if you'll ever be in need of a translation tool.
One useful trick? If you've got an Android phone and a data connection, use the inbuilt Google Assistant to quickly translate a phrase and speak it aloud. Saying something like "OK Google, translate where is the train station into Japanese" will do so in within a couple of seconds, with no need to open the app or mess around with choosing the right options. This makes asking passers-by for help a much more realistic option.
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iTranslate Voice does exactly what the name suggests: translating spoken conversation between languages. After picking the language pair you'd like to use (there are over 40 of them), each person simply speaks in their native language. The app deals with the translation, reading aloud–with surprising accuracy–in the other language.
You can also look up words and phrases using your voice, and save common translations in the Phrasebook to use as needed. If you find yourself regularly asking the same questions, but haven't quite mastered the pronunciation yet, that's definitely a useful feature.
Unlike the others, iTranslate Voice isn't free–but if you're looking for one of the best voice-based translation apps on the market, it may well be worth the money.
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Translator Speak and Translate Pro
In a market saturated with free apps, offering a paid product is risky. Translator Speak and Translate Pro is different enough, however, that it's worth the money for those who need its features.
As the name suggests, the app focuses on providing translation of actual speech–in this case, real-time translation of over 100 languages. Need to talk to the taxi driver to get home, or explain your nut allergy to the waiter without fear of misunderstanding? This is the app to do it.
Languages are automatically detected (useful in a group setting), and a conversation can be held without pressing any buttons. The app does require an Internet connection, however–although you can save 'favorite phrases' for offline use, that's about it.
A limited free version is available, with the Pro edition costing $3.99.
Available on Android
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Powered by Microsoft's Bing language service, Translator combines the best parts of other apps to come up with an excellent translation tool that has support for the widest range of mobile devices.
With real-time camera-based translation, support for 50+ languages, speech-to-text and offline language packs, Translator is a powerful, fully featured app, and is available for free for Windows Phone, Android, and iOS users.
If you're a Windows Phone user, this is the only way you'll get offline translation on your mobile device. Even for users of other devices, though, it's well worth a look–you get the same features as Google's offering, and it's the same, free price. There's nothing to lose!