The Coolest Vision and Voice Translation Apps and Products for 2020

Going to a foreign country and don’t speak the language? Don’t fret. Two-way audiovisual translation apps and gadgets have got your back. Whether you use your smartphone as your personal translator or invest a Benjamin in a slick standalone device, the state of the art in mobile translation has made major strides forward in recent years. We’ll look at the use of cameras to magically translate a foreign tongue to English and of voice recognition to communicate successfully with a foreigner — no typing required!  And if you want to learn a foreign language, these apps and gadgets may be just the tutor you need!

Visual Translation: Does It Make Sense?

A new batch of visual translators uses cameras to scan and translate foreign menus, signs, ads, you name it. They use optical character recognition (OCR) to decode the text of the original, artificial intelligence (AI) to do the translation, and then augmented reality (AR) to overlay the translated text over the original – in the camera. The quality of translating apps and language translator gadgets, especially camera translation, continues to improve, but have they been holding up well to the translation needs of its users? Find out more here.

The combination of OCR, AI and AR, with the overlay of translation on top of the live image is brilliant in concept, though still imperfect in execution. Machines have a way to go before they can match the level of an expert human linguist, but they are closing the gap. Obviously, if you need a superior quality translation for business purposes, it will be preferable to turn to a professional translation agency or localization company. But localization services are of no help when you want to read signs or menus when traveling. Camera translation is all about convenience and immediate linguistic gratification on the go. The future is not far off when there will be no delay between a cam recording a foreign text and rendering it into a familiar language.

Smartphone Camera Translation Apps

With everyone carrying a smartphone, and the Megapixels and features of cameras improving all the time, it’s natural to use phone cams to make sense of foreign language signs and labels on the go. The Google Translate app and Microsoft Translator are out in front, taking a point-and-shoot approach to video translation. They recognize foreign languages, automatically translate, then render an augmented reality text replacement on your phone screen.

Google calls its capability “instant camera translation” and supports 88 languages. The preview mode takes several seconds for translations to appear, depending on font clarity, type size and focus. You can also take or import photos for higher quality instant translations in 50 languages.

Microsoft Translator offers a camera translation app that works a little differently. With a clean design than google, featuring bigger icons and less clutter, the app makes an impressive first impression. But unlike Google, you need to click the camera icon and hope for the best.

A pair of lesser known translation apps specialize in Asian languages. WayGo is superb at rendering Chinese, Japanese and Korean to English, but not the other way around. You don’t even need an internet connection. Papago bills itself as an AI translator and earns high rating for its visual translation for Asian to Asian languages, including Thai and Vietnamese.

Voice Translator Apps

Voice recognition and translation apps these days are getting very good, reaching a quality that they can be used for voiceover translation and website audio translation. Let’s say you’re wandering around a village in Latin America and you need directions. These apps will translate Spanish to English and the quality of that Spanish-to-English translation is likely to be close to 100% correct. The same is true for most spoken languages.

Again, Google and Microsoft lead the voice translator pack. Google Translate does remarkably well with full sentences but its speech-to-text capability can have trouble decoding single words. Microsoft pushes a different approach in its voice translation app, making you click “Start conversation”, log in and enter your name and language to get a “conversation code” that can be shared with other participants. That may be great for addressing larger audiences via conference call, but not well suited for travelers. Happily, after selecting your desired language pair, just hold down the microphone icon and get an instant voice translation.

What about Voice and Visual Translator Gadgets?

If you’re a traveler’s traveling light, buying a standalone translation gadget rather than using an app may seem counterintuitive. Still, there’s obviously a strong demand for such products on the market, as can be read in the 2019 reviews here.

Many of these products include “camera translation” or two-way voice translators. While you might get a product ergonomically focused on translation, uncomplicated by other apps and functions, there are drawbacks: the quality of cameras and microphones may not equal your smartphone’s. The translation algorithms are not being constantly updated and upgraded as are the products of software giants like Microsoft and Google.

Translation gadgets with voice and camera translation may be a nice going-away gift for the wandering nomad in your family, or for stuffing a stocking, but they do force the traveler to carry around an extra device and face the puzzled queries of strangers: “Is that a translator in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”