We often get asked this question, as there seems to be a general notion in the modern age that anyone can talk in another language just as long as they have an iPhone and the right app. There are many apps out there that promise to translate written or spoken words, and some apps that will even speak the translated words right back at you. The commercials for these apps and for software based on them lead us to believe that they are the future, that thanks to them we can truly create a multi-cultural world, and one where everyone can communicate. Are these apps as good as a real interpreter though and can they deliver on what they promise??
If you have ever used an online translating program with knowledge of the language you’re translating into, then you probably already know to answer to this. What is produced by programs such as BabelFish and Google Translate very rarely makes any sense. You just cant use these programs to have a real conversation with someone in a different language, nor can you use them to get any semblance of what a foreign text says.
These programs use the very latest in translating software, which means that more often than not this is the same sort of software use by interpreting apps. It just doesn’t pick up on the nuances in language and struggles with things such as idioms, which form a large part of modern languages such as English.
The fact that these programs produce better results with some languages is promising, but this might speak more for how closely those languages are in nature (such as Spanish and English) as opposed to the fact that the software has been created to understand them better.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, and these apps and indeed the programs mentioned above do serve a process, it’s just not a very useful one. If you want to translate a piece of text or a conversation that the speakers or the writers never intended to be translated (which is to say that they didn’t change their words accordingly) then it will struggle and produce something incoherent. If, however, you want to translate something very simple, then you might be okay.
That’s where these apps come in, because they have replaced the stereotypical tourist who carries around a guidebook and then aggressively points at words when speaking to foreigners. Thanks to these apps, the foreigner needs only to speak/write a simple word or two and it will be translated for them in a way that someone who speaks that language can understand. This is because single words are simple, devoid of syntax and everything else that serves to make translation complicated.
So, to summarize, whilst interpreter apps might help you if you know nothing or very little about the language, they can’t replace a professional translator when you need a reliable and accurate translation. These programs and the software they use is certainly not going to render professional translators obsolete, nor will it stop people from learning new languages, but they do serve their purpose and may be able to assist people living, working and holidaying in a foreign country.