Let’s play a hypothetical game.
What would you do if you had something to say in Japanese, but didn’t know how to say it?
B. Run away and hide.
C. Randomly belt out the lyrics to your favorite anime theme song.
D. Use your smart phone.
E. Switch to learning French.
While there’s obviously no correct answer to this question (though I’d love to see C happen in real life), only one of these choices will actually solve your communication dilemma.
Yep, you guessed it—that’s D.
Smartphones aren’t just for texting and avoiding eye contact during tedious blind dates. If you’re struggling with Japanese, simply pulling out your smartphone can work a miracle right before your eyes.
Maybe you didn’t know, but smart phones have access to a plethora of Japanese translation apps.
Nowadays, translation apps have everyone talking. Literally. They allow people of two distinct mother tongues to have full-on conversations, no interpreter and no money required.
If that’s not すごい (amazing), I don’t know what is!
But finding the right Japanese translation app for you can prove troublesome if you’re unfamiliar with what’s available. And, naturally, what’s perfect for you depends on your reasons for wanting a translation app.
Are you intending to talk with a native Japanese speaker? Have you forgotten conversational phrases and how to pronounce certain words? Are you attempting to read kanji on a menu? Maybe you’ve never studied Japanese before and are excitedly preparing a first visit to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Whatever your case, one of the six Japanese translation apps below can offer a much-needed hand.
And the best part is, you don’t have to pay anything. Like, zero, zip, nada.
Why You Should Switch to Japanese Translation Apps
- They’re convenient. Japanese translation apps can be downloaded directly on your smartphone, so all you’re doing is sacrificing a hundred or so megabytes of space—not gaining ten pounds in travel necessities. (Seriously, have you ever tried lugging around a dictionary?) The best part is that you can delete translation apps at any time, and presto! Immediate storage space.
- They’re free. Sure, you could fork out a good half of your paycheck for the most technologically advanced app. Or you could, you know, just download a couple of free ones containing the same basic functions. Maybe it’s just me, but I like my apps how I like my food: simple in flavor, filling and cheap as heck.
- They’re easy to use. The cheaper the app, the simpler it’ll be. But simpler doesn’t always equate to worse. Rather, it just means the app will have fewer advanced features (which are usually expendable anyway). And when you’re on the go, the last thing you’ll want to do is spend hours toying with an overly-complicated app.
- They’re communicative tools. Japanese translation apps aren’t just Japanese-English dictionary apps disguising themselves as cooler-sounding upgrades. In reality, they’re far superior, flaunting an impressive combination of dictionary-like features, full-sentence translations and pronunciation aid. If you find yourself stuck trying to say something in Japanese, pulling out a dictionary will do little to help facilitate the conversation and clarify your intentions. But whip out a smartphone and you’ll have the ability to sustain a fully functional conversation in two languages—with no need for an interpreter.
How to Find the Best Japanese Translation Apps
- Avoid dictionaries and beginner’s phrasebooks. As previously mentioned, translation apps are different from dictionaries. So when you get to searching an app store for Japanese translation apps, look for titles with the words “translator” and “translate” and avoid anything solely labeled as a “dictionary” or “beginner’s phrasebook.” Dictionary and phrasebook apps aren’t poor, per se, but they won’t offer comparable bilingual capability.
- Expand your search to include multi-language translators. Although your main language of study is 日本語 (にほんご – Japanese), don’t restrict your searches to “Japanese translation apps.” There are a ton of high-quality, multi-language translation apps with crisper interfaces and savvier features. Plus, if you’re a traveler, you’ll probably prefer the breadth of language options in a multi-language translator anyway.
- Look at ratings and reviews. It’s important to remember that the people downloading Japanese translation apps are, in one way or another, a lot like you: They’re Japanese learners, language lovers and travelers. They’re not going to rely on some crummy, confusing app to teach them how to communicate, and neither should you. So put some trust in the ratings and make sure to skim the reviews to get an idea of the pros and cons of each app that appeals to you.
- Test out (free) apps. Sometimes it’s a good idea to dip your toes in the water before diving in, right? If you find a Japanese translation app you like, give it a download—so long as the app is free or a free version. Never purchase a translation app without testing it first. After your self-determined trial period, if you like the app, keep it and consider purchasing its upgrade in the future. But if you’re absolutely unimpressed, dump it like an old boyfriend and never look back.
6 of the Best Japanese Translation Apps You Can Download for Free
As a bonus, you can check out FluentU, which is a learner-oriented way to study new words in authentic context.
Japanese English Dictionary & Translator Free 英和辞典・和英辞典 (えいわじてん・わえい じてん) by Bravolol
Android app | iPhone app
Ideal User: Beginner or intermediate Japanese learner; Japan traveler
Although primarily advertised as a dictionary, Bravolol’s Japanese Dictionary app offers an in-depth resource for the most common formal and informal phrases you’ll hear in Japan. The app is home to more than 350,000 words and phrases, including far more examples and sentence fragments than any old dictionary or phrasebook.
It comes with an audio feature, which you can use to listen to Japanese pronunciation at varying speeds, from tortoise (slowest) to hare (fastest). (For the record, the “hare” speed is incredibly quick and not the least bit natural, so stick to a speed in the medium or medium-fast range.)
In addition, the app is entirely offline, so if you’re headed somewhere with no guaranteed Wi-Fi or 3G/4G connection, you’ll love the convenience of this handy digital translator.
Offline Japanese English Translator + Bilingual Sentences / オフライン英語 – 日本語翻訳 (おふらいん えいご・にほんご ほんやく) by Xung Le
Ideal User: Beginner or intermediate Japanese learner; Japan traveler
Xung Le’s Offline Japanese English Translator is another simplistic offline translation app focused on text-based translation. Although the vocabulary is limited to a static library, this quantity is more than sufficient to get around and to refresh your memory during those dreaded moments of blanking.
The app contains a vast number of practical conversation starters, filler words and example sentences, most helpful for newbie Japan travelers and beginner learners. For instance, if you search “How do I get to ~,” you’ll get an eclectic list of examples using this phrase in Japanese.
The app might not elaborate on the fundamentals of Japanese grammar, but it offers some wonderfully concrete examples—written and spoken—to refer to when stuck. It’s like a dictionary and phrasebook together, times ten in content.
Waygo Translator & Dictionary by Translate Abroad
Android app | iPhone app
Ideal User: Beginner, intermediate or advanced Japanese learner; Japan traveler/inhabitant
Ever tried and failed miserably to read a sign in Japanese? Well, with Waygo, you don’t have to play the part of embarrassed 外人 (がいじん – foreigner) anymore.
This is a neat, handy little app geared toward translating everyday Japanese, Chinese and Korean characters into English. Unlike other translation apps, Waygo uses your smartphone’s camera function to capture images of Japanese words and kanji, and then instantly displays a translation.
This app can be used for kanji practice as well as everyday translation of signs and notices. If you’re living in Japan, this is the app for you. Honestly, it sure beats memorizing thousands of kanji just so you can read the name of that one mouth-watering entrée.
iHandy Translator Free by iHandy Inc.
Ideal User: Beginner or intermediate Japanese learner; long-distance communicator; social media enthusiast
Got a Japanese pen pal, or love tweeting in Japanese? Try iHandy Translator, a fantastic staple to your app library and perfect for those intending to communicate via email or social media in Japanese. The multi-language translation app works the same as any generic text translator.
But while the free version of the app doesn’t allow for any audio pronunciation, it does show off an array of awesome sharing features. With the click of a button, you can copy translated Japanese text and instantly insert it into documents, text messages and emails. You can also upload translations to Twitter and Facebook without the hassle of copying and pasting it yourself. #sugoiapuri
Japanese Translation by Excite Japan Co., Ltd.
Android app | iPhone app
Ideal User: Intermediate Japanese learner; Japan traveler
Japanese Translation might look like any other translation app at first, but it’s got some advantages, especially for those living or traveling in Japan. For one, the app was made by Excite Japan, a Japanese company, and has been downloaded over a million times in Japan alone. So, if you’re planning on using it to talk to someone in Japan, chances are they might already know how to work the app.
As with all translators, Japanese Translation produces the occasional awkward translation here and there. But it also does something other apps don’t: It re-translates translated text back into the original language, which effectively suggests how accurate (or inaccurate) the translation might be. If the re-translation sounds nothing like your original text, you can go back and alter various parts of what you wrote to test for clarity. Pretty cool, huh?
iTranslate Voice Lite by Sonico GmbH
Ideal User: Beginner Japanese (or other language) learner; world traveler; customer service representative
This unique piece of software is an essential multi-language translation app and one of the most impressive on this list. With 40 languages and instant voice translation, iTranslate Voice is destined to become one of your go-to apps for difficult Japanese conversations.
After you designate your target languages (Japanese and English), all you have to do is say something in one of the languages and you’ll instantly receive a spoken and written translation. Using this app, you can have a real-time bilingual conversation in English and Japanese with someone—even if you only know just one of the languages fluently.
The voice recognition software is surprisingly accurate, and the text-bubble interface includes romaji for beginner learners. The only major downside is that there is a translation limit on the free version, so unless you’re going to use it on a daily basis, don’t bother forking out the $6.99.
Using a Japanese Translation App
Apps are more than just games and music—they’re learning aids, teachers and mediators. And by downloading any of these free Japanese translation apps, you’re sure to improve your communication skills and increase your overall linguistic confidence.
As a final word of caution, though, I want to remind you that a translation app is not…
- A grammar teacher. You won’t learn the intricacies of Japanese grammar with a translation app, even a hefty, multi-featured one. The purpose of translation apps is to provide you with fast and convenient translations–not to elaborate on the mechanics of the Japanese language.
- 100% accurate. All translation apps are computer programs, not geniuses. Translations will never be 100% accurate, 100% of the time.
- Always free. While the list above contains free (and free versions of) Japanese translation apps, not all translation apps run as cheap. It’s up to you to decide what kind of translator you’re looking for and if it’s worth the investment.
- Always ad-free. It’s a bummer, yes. But on the bright side, most free translation apps have at most the occasional full-screen ad (usually pleading for you to upgrade to the pro version) and some banners. Nothing more.
- Always available to use offline. The majority of translation apps rely on an Internet connection to perform the translation process. Some are offline but not all, so if you’re planning to travel without access to Wi-Fi or 3G/4G, be prepared to think outside the box in the event your app can’t perform its tasks.
These days, there’s no need to stress about using Japanese. Whether you’re practicing alone or conversing with a Japanese friend, with any one of these translation apps you’ll become a native Japanese speaker instantly—and have loads of fun doing it.
So what’s my last piece of advice?
Start speaking Japanese and make sure your phone is fully charged!
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iOS and Android, and it's also available as a website that you can access on your computer or tablet.
Hannah Muniz is a freelance writer and translator in the greater Houston area.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.