Machines: Can they ever really do what our complex, mysterious brains can?
Some people don’t care.
They Google Translate away and hope for the best.
I once had a partner who used Google Translate for understanding important documents, like legal contracts.
I got many a headache from trying to make him see that what he thought was in a contract was actually not.
Indeed, important documents and automatic translations don’t mix well. But hey, professional translators charge by the word, and Google Translate is free!
Nevertheless, in the age of smartphone apps, automatic translations have truly evolved.
And speech recognition has brought about the possibility of virtually instantaneous translation. Say a phrase out loud, and some apps can return a translation before you can count to three.
I make a substantial portion of my income with translations, and I don’t fear machines are going to compete with what I do anytime soon. But I do believe that apps are wonderful for translating simple texts.
For example, when you find yourself at a bakery in Bavaria, your stomach starts making noises and you have no idea how to order a little piece-of-heaven pastry, a translation app can be a godsend!
Of course, you don’t want to end up with nonsensical phrases like “This is me totally sausage” as a translation for the colloquial “Das ist mir Wurst” (I don’t care at all), or “Do not me on the biscuit” for “Geh’ mir nicht auf den Keks” (Don’t get on my nerves).
For this reason, it is key to find the best translation apps around, and to know how to use them.
Whether you are looking for a professional tool or a quick on-the-go app for your trip to Germany, there are many interesting options.
The Pros and Cons of Translation Apps
The key to using translation apps is knowing what they are great for and what they are not very reliable for. I find that people often fail at semi-automatic translations just because they ignore apps’ pros and cons.
- Translation apps often offer many different options and synonyms for nouns and verbs. Some app translations feature clickable words, which can be switched for a number of suitable alternatives.
- Translation apps may offer pronunciation guides or audio. Simply click on a word or phrase to hear a native speaker pronounce your text. You really couldn’t do this in the long-lost age of the print dictionary.
- Some apps build memories as users edit them, so that they provide access to up-to-date knowledge by professional translators. If you use Google Translator Toolkit, for example, it will save your edits and propose translations learnt from previous users. While there’s no guarantee that a previous user didn’t get a translation wrong, in my experience, this is a fabulous feature.
- Apps are fast. Press ENTER, and you’ll receive your translated text almost instantly. I have auto-translated whole books in a matter of seconds.
- Apps are either free or affordable. The competition is fierce, and developers are offering new free and affordable apps every day.
- Apps tend to translate words in isolation, except when dealing with the most common phrases. This often leads to error.
- Some interfaces are not practical for editing the text within the app. If you can’t edit within the app, then the translation of written texts can get a bit complicated. You’ll have to exit the app and paste the translation into a word processor, losing the app’s functionalities, such as clickable words and pronunciation aids.
- Apps seldom work for translating slang and colloquial language. As fast as developers may update them, language evolves faster, and they often lag behind when it comes to current colloquial language.
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The Best German Translation Apps out There
Some apps are great for travelers, others are best for professional translators, and others for voice translation. They can’t all be perfect, but there’s one out there for everyone.
GreenLife German English Translator
This free app, available for Android, offers a user-friendly interface. It’s ideal for translating simple phrases and practicing pronunciation. It’s a bit low on colloquial phrases, but includes SMS integration and speech recognition. The app’s sleek and responsive design is its biggest asset.
When you are traveling, you don’t always have an internet connection. Ultralingua can be used offline, which makes it perfect for the road. The German dictionary is an add-on for the free basic app; it costs $15 for Android and $20 for Apple devices. This is the price per language pair, so if you want to add, for example, a Spanish translation app, you have to pay again. Interesting features include Google integration and a verb conjugation tool. Ultralingua’s German database has over 270,000 terms.
The biggest advantage of the Google Translate app for Android and Apple devices comes to you compliments of its millions of users from all over the world, who are constantly feeding new translations into the system. While the initial automated translations it offers are often riddled with mistakes, it’s probably the best simple tool for translating and later editing lengthy texts.
This award-winning app is one of the best for speech recognition and instant voice translation. It allows users to edit manually, has chat and SMS integration, and offers a convenient phrasebook. It is available free for Android and at a small cost for Apple devices ($7).
This intuitive app is ideal to use on-the-go. Available as a free Android app, it features a phrasebook menu with useful phrases for travelers. You can switch between a variety of languages. The only drawback is that it has a limited number of characters you can enter at a time. This can lead to inaccuracies, as splitting phrases can alter meaning. It is best for translating short phrases.
Speak & Translate
This is a dedicated app for speech recognition and translation. It is free, ad-supported and available for Apple devices. You may find the ads a bit distracting, and it may not be the best for translating longer sentences, but it still offers the advantages of good speech recognition, good translation speed and ease of use.
When Translation Apps Fall Short
Translation apps sometimes translate literally, and this can cause a lot of inaccuracy in meaning. For translations of words in context, there are some great resources. I resort to these all the time when I am doing translation work.
Chances are, if you want a faithful translation of anything other than basic phrases, you will at some point end up browsing through one of these sites.
This is an online multilingual dictionary. It features everything you need to really get the meaning of a word, from definitions to examples of the word used in context to comments from users. It is one of the prime online resources for translation.
Reverso functions similarly to Google Translate. When you enter text, you will receive an automated translation, which can be literal and misleading—but you will also receive sentences with the word or phrase used in context. Reverso is also available as an app.
Linguee is a fabulous tool. When you enter a phrase, you get two side-by-side columns featuring texts using the phrase you entered in German and their English translation. This information is taken from multilingual sites. Thus, you can not only see the word or words in context, but also in many different contexts, so you can decide which meaning is the most accurate for the text you are translating. I can never get enough of Linguee! The only drawback is that it doesn’t protect you against bad translations, which do abound on the web. Just bear in mind that some of the results may be wrong.
Proz is a top freelancing platform for translators. If you are dealing with a controversial or difficult term in German, chances are that Proz translators have discussed it in the Proz forums. Because translators are usually dealing with formal documents, this is a great place to look for legal terms, specific glossaries and all manner of formal language translations.
A flawless machine translation is still an unrealistic dream.
But in my experience, a combination of excellent translation apps and in-context translation services can get you pretty close!