How to Use Translation Apps While Traveling

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It’s a problem as old as the Tower of Babel: how do you communicate with others when you don’t speak their language? Anna-Marie Cartagena found herself in this situation during a recent visit to a spice market in Israel. The employee did not speak English and Cartagena did not speak Hebrew. She did not have access to a phone with an internet connection.

The Cartagena solution is not new, but it is often overlooked. A sign language interpreter by profession, she decided to try communicating non-verbally. “I gestured and clucked like a chicken,” she says – a request for the spices used to prepare the chicken. Then she anointed pork. “Then he made spice mixes for all the items and drew a picture of a chicken, a fish, a pig, a carrot and a cow on each bag,” she recalls.

“Communication has to happen – and it will.”

Luckily, there are easier ways to get your point across. There are a variety of translation apps and services that can help travelers overcome language barriers.

Translation apps. Google Translate, the most widely used translation app, automatically translates sentences into dozens of languages. “Google Translate can be a good resource if you don’t speak the destination language and need to convey urgent information, such as a restaurant order,” says Carolina Sánchez-Hervás, founder of CSH Translation, a provider of translation services. But she recommends using it with caution: the app may not pick up on nuances such as gender agreement, jokes or metaphors. Google also offers an interpreter mode that lets you speak into your device for near real-time translation. But for most users, it depends on a fast internet connection, so if you are offline, it may not work.

Carla Bevins, who teaches business communication at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, also likes Microsoft Translator, a free app that offers translations in over 100 languages ​​and allows for up to 100 participants. The iTranslate app can also offer more flexibility. “It supports gesture-based commands and can translate Chinese characters,” she says. But Bevins cautions against overreliance on translation apps. Nothing replaces learning a few key phrases and communicating face to face. “Be prepared to try talking with others,” she advises. “Practicing your speaking will improve you and create great memories.”

Live performers. Several apps can connect you to a live performer. Alan Campbell, a former Foreign Service employee who teaches Spanish translation, likes Jeenie (iOS or Android), an app that charges a dollar a minute for real-time interpretations. “It’s a great app with a respectable mission to support language accessibility and equity in settings other than travel,” he says. The app works through your camera, so your interpreter can also see the body language cues of the person you’re talking to, allowing for greater accuracy. Other apps, such as Stepes, charge by the word but may offer more language options. Day Translations can translate, help with pronunciation and, if necessary, put you in touch with an interpreter.

Translation cards. For situations where an accurate translation is essential — describing a medical condition or food allergy, for example — some travelers will purchase cards or printouts to take on vacation. Companies such as Equal Eats sell cards describing conditions such as celiac disease and nut allergies ($7.99 for an instant download or $16.99 for a plastic card) in different languages. The translation software is “not accurate enough to convey life-threatening allergy information overseas,” says Kyle Dine, CEO of Equal Eats. The company uses professional translators, proofreaders and native speakers to ensure the most accurate translation. The information is also available as an app.

Travel insurance. If you have a travel insurance policy, you may be able to take advantage of translation services. For example, Allianz Travel Insurance’s support hotline offers real-time services to its customers in several major languages, including French, German and Italian. “Travelers who call ahead can request our assistance with arrangements in the language of their destination – whether it’s booking a hotel, restaurant or sightseeing tours or obtaining important information needed throughout throughout their trip,” said LaShanta Sullivan, manager of Allianz’s travel assistance service. If you are a member of Medjet, which offers medical evacuations, you can also use its medical translation benefits to distill and translate foreign medical reports into English.

Of course, the best way to communicate is to learn the language. Although you may not have time to become proficient, even knowing a few words and phrases can be helpful. There are plenty of apps that can help you learn another language. “Even a little effort goes a long way and is not only appreciated by locals, but also allows you a deeper connection to the country, away from your smartphone,” says Franziska Wirth, sales manager for guidebook publisher Rough. Guides.

But there is not always time for that. On a recent visit to Turkey, I barely passed the hello (“merhaba”). One evening, I found myself in a taxi with a driver who didn’t speak English. I searched Google Translate on my phone and finally typed in what I wanted to say. Then I pressed the button for it to play out loud. Nothing happened. So I pushed him away. The Turkish translation delivered slowly, which happens when you press the button twice, and everyone had a good laugh.

Ultimately, methods such as Cartagena’s may still be the most effective. Kelley Price, a human resources manager from Kirkland, Wash., used it recently when she visited a town just outside of Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast. She stopped at a restaurant where no one spoke English and the menus were entirely in Turkish.

“So I made chicken noises,” she said. “I grew up on a farm and I can do pretty realistic chicken. And we had chicken for dinner.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.


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