How to use Google Translate when you travel

Recent improvements to Google Translate have made it the essential app for travellers struggling with the local lingo. Here’s how to get the most out of this extremely useful invention...

5 mins

The Google Translate app can be a vital tool for travellers faced with a language they don't understand. Here, we'll explain how to get the app, how to use Google Translate for travel, and all of the handy features you can take advantage of.

You can click on a question below to skip to the answer, or just keep scrolling for the full Google Translate for travel guide:

What is Google Translate?

Google Translate is a free, multilingual machine translation service developed by Google to translate text and the spoken word.

It supports over 100 languages and each day serves over 500 million people, translating 100 billion words.

How can I access Google Translate?

You can access Google Translate as via Google's website on your computer or as a handy app on your smartphone, available from your phone’s app store.

How does Google Translate work?

In its simplest form, you set the language you want translated and the language you want it translated into, type in words and Google Translate translates it for you.

However, over the years the service becomes more sophisticated and powerful, particularly the smartphone apps. Now Google Translate can access your phone’s camera and microphone to translate signs and menus through your camera’s lens or listen to and translate conversations in real time.

Basic translation

The most basic Google Translate function and the default option offered on the home screen. Simply set the languages, type in a word or phrase and your translation will appear.

Say the word

Rather than type in a word or phrase, Google Translation also gives the option for you, or a friendly local, to say a word or phrase and have it translated.

Again, set the languages on the home screen, but this time choose the ‘Voice’ icon and speak.

Write it down

A new handwriting option allows you or your new local chum to write a word or phrase on your phone’s screen and have that translated.

Useful for languages full of tricky umlauts, simply tap on the ‘Handwriting’ option and follow the instructions.

Use your camera

This feature is perfect for quickly translating signs and menus.

Tap on the ‘Camera’ icon on the home screen and point your camera towards whatever it is you want translated. Words and phrases immediately transform into a language you can understand, right before your eyes.

How to have a conversation in two languages

Google has spent a lot of time and money developing Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT). Whereas in the early days Google Translate translated each word individually, it now translates whole sentences, using broader context so it can translate more like human speech.

The result is Conversation Mode, a feature that uses your phone’s microphone to translate a conversation between you and a foreign speaker. It listens to both languages, offering translations to both you and your new friend on the screen. Simply select the languages on the home screen, tap the ‘Conversation’ icon and start talking.

More handy Google Translate features for travellers...

1. Offline translation

A connection to the internet cannot always be guaranteed in your travels. And even when it is, data charges can be prohibitive. That’s why it makes sense to download a language pack, or offline translation file, as Google likes to call it. 

Offline translation files come in two sizes – small and recommended. The small file is usually about 3mb and contains popular words. Recommended is about 40mb, and has more words. 

Dialogue box will offer you the option to download them when you first choose a language. Otherwise, look for the download icon on the right hand side of a language as you select it.

These language packs now come with Google neural machine translation (GNMT) making offline translation as accurate as being online.

2. Save favourite words and phrases

In your travels, there will be a host of words and phrases you’ll find yourself using all the time, from general greetings to requests for specific directions.

Rather than constantly looking them up, you can add to a list of favourites than you can access quickly and easily.

To save a translation, tap on the star icon in the right corner. To access it again, look for the ‘Saved’ icon at the bottom of your home screen.

3. Highlight text to translate

While the real-time translation of signs and menus by Google Translate using your camera can seem like magic, sometime you will want to have a closer look at particular words or phrases.

Simply tap the camera button and Google Translate will begin scanning. Highlight the particular section you’re interested in by dragging your finger across it.

Tap the blue arrow button and you will exit out of camera mode and return to the Home screen with your translated text.


What else can Google Translate help with, beyond translation?

Once a word or phrase has been translated, Google Translate offers a host of other useful functions.

Pronunciation guide

Knowing the right word is only half the battle. Pronouncing it correctly is just as important. Once your word or phrase is translated, you’ll notice a speaker icon above it. Tap on it and you’ll hear the word pronounced through your phone speaker.

Alternative translations and definitions

As Google Translate has become more sophisticated, it has recognised that words and phrases can have a multitude of meanings. To that end, each translation comes with a list of alternative translations as well as definitions of each of those alternatives. You’ll find them by scrolling down below the initial translation.

Tap to translate

Android users also have the option to translate SMS messages using a new ‘Tap To Translate’ feature. You don’t have to have the Google Translate app open to use it. Simple copy the text your want translated within your messaging app and a translate bubble will appear, offering to translate your message.

P.S. Google Translate is great - but don't use it for everything!

Google Translate is not infallible. While it is getting better all the time, caution should be exercised when using it for crucial information.

The odd mis-translation of a menu is not a big deal. Getting dosage information wrong on medication is. In such situations, it is best to find a human who can speak your language to help.

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