Translation AdviceTranslation, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2017

Five Translation Tools That Will Help You Understand Most Languages


There are several key translation tools out there you can use when hiring a professional translator or interpreter is not feasible. Keep in mind, however, that even though machine translators are on the rise, none of them are fully adequate replacements for human professionals. Searching the internet will also provide plenty of stories about why relying on machine translators for business can be a costly mistake. But, if you simply want the gist of what's written in that one tweet or news article, then you have a few options and this post will detail some of the most popular ones.

Google Translate

Originally launched in 2006, Google Translate has over 500 million users translating more than 100 billion words a day. This tool currently supports 103 languages including Arabic, Chichewa, Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Malay, Norwegian, Portuguese… the list goes on.

Google's mission statement is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, and this initiative is extended to Google Translate's features. The browser version provides you with the following options:

  • Text—You can type the text to be translated on your keyboard. The text is translated in real time, meaning that the words are translated as you write them.
  • Detect language—This feature can recognize the source language if you don't know what it is.
  • Handwriting—You can draw letters or characters with a touchscreen, a tablet, or even a mouse. This is useful for translating symbols and characters from certain languages.
  • Speech—Speak into your microphone and your words are translated in real time.
  • Document support—You can upload and translate your files.

In addition to the above, the app version includes the following features:

  • Conversation Mode—Talk to another person with your microphone and your speech is translated in real time.
  • Camera Mode—You can take pictures with your phone's camera, and the text is translated to another language.
  • Instant camera translation—The phone's camera can translate visible text in real time. This is very convenient for translating public signs.
  • Offline—Languages can be translated without an internet connection.

Adding to the versatility is the fact that Google Translate is also integrated with other Google services; entire webpages can be translated through Google Search, and Chrome users can translate any page with a mouse click.

It's worth noting though that not all features are available for every language, and the translation quality varies drastically between languages. This is because Google Translate originally used a system of "statistical machine translation" (SMT) which works by detecting patterns in documents translated by human translators and using that data to make intelligent guesses as to what an appropriate translation should be. Basically, like a parrot repeating human speech, SMT takes common wording and applies it to automatic translations. This system inevitably favors the most commonly used languages because it has more data to work with.

Recently, Google Translate incorporated a Neural Machine Translation (NMT) system which can actually break down sentences, interpret the context, and rearrange words to match the grammar structure of the target language. This system is also capable of learning over time, producing continually improved results, and the difference hasn't gone unnoticed. The language pairs currently supported by this system (to and from) are English and French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Turkish. Although Google aims to apply NMT to all languages supported by Google Translate, this means that the tool still manages some languages better than others. On the flip side, you have the option to report translation issues to Google, which helps them to improve Google Translate.

In short, Google Translate is a very practical and versatile tool undergoing constant improvement, but it isn't without its significant flaws. Your mileage may vary depending on the language pair you're working with, and even NMT doesn't guarantee a perfect translation. Google Translate can be a very handy tool from time to time, but you should always keep its limitations in mind.

Microsoft Translator

Microsoft's answer to Google Translate and arguably its main competitor, this tool was originally launched in 2007. It works very similarly and has support for 60 languages and apps for Windows, Windows Phone, iOS, Android, and Android Wear. The browser version has these features:

  • Text—You can type the text to be translated on your keyboard. The text is translated in real time, meaning the words are translated as you write them. It has a 5000-character limit.
  • Auto-Detect—This feature can recognize the source language if you don't know what it is.
  • Conversation—You can start or join a conversation with another person, with your text or speech being translated in real time.

The app version adds the following features:

  • Conversation Mode—You can use your microphone to talk with another person, and your dialogue is translated in real time.
  • Photo—You can take pictures with your phone's camera, and the text is translated to another language.
  • Offline—It allows you to download language packs to use the tool without an internet connection.

In addition, this tool is integrated with other Microsoft products such as Office, SharePoint, Yammer, Visual Studio, Bing and Skype, which is one advantage it has over Google. It's worth noting though that like Google Translate, not all features are available for every language.

Although Microsoft Translator doesn't have nearly as many features and language options as Google Translate, some customer reviews consider it a superior option. Microsoft Translator also seems to favor a more "quality over quantity" approach; while it doesn't support as many languages as Google Translate, the translation quality and available features are arguably more consistent across the languages it does support because Microsoft tries to gather a certain amount of data before a new language is added. Microsoft is also keeping up with the times, having recently incorporated a neural network system to their translation technology. So, while Google may have the lead in this race, be sure to check all the options to see which one works best for you.

Linguee

Linguee was founded in December 2008 by Gereon Frahling and Leonard Fink, and it was released to the public in April 2009. Linguee stands out from the other options for being less of a machine translation and more of a multilingual dictionary. As a result of the work of 400 translators, lexicographers, and linguists, Linguee has support for 25 languages and 234 language pairs, and it was used by 500 million people in 2015.

The main distinction of this translation tool lies in how Linguee operates. Instead of simply giving you a translation for a word or phrase, Linguee also shows examples of the terms being used in context on the web. This is possible because Linguee uses web crawlers to search for bilingual texts and to then feed them to a machine learning algorithm. This tool has access to over 1 billion translations, which can be reviewed for accuracy. A free app is also available for iOS and Android, with audio pronunciations and offline mode.

iTranslate

An award-winning app and one of the most popular choices (with 5,000,000 - 10,000,000 installs on Google Play alone), iTranslate combines a dictionary and a machine translator into one app. It supports more than 90 languages and has the following options:

  • Romanization—iTranslate can convert non-Latin characters into Latin characters. It works with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Greek, Hindi, Russian, and Thai, among other languages.
  • Voice input—It can translate speech, saving you the time required to type it out.
  • Voice output—You can choose between a male and a female voice, as well as a specific dialect for your translation.
  • Dictionaries—iTranslate includes synonyms and alternate meanings.

The Pro version adds the following features:

  • Website translation—A built-in browser can translate websites in real time.
  • Conjugation—The app can conjugate translated verbs.
  • Voice-to-Voice conversations—Instantly speak another language.
  • Offline mode—It can translate popular language pairs without an internet connection.

iTranslate is available on the AppStore, App Watch, Windows, and Google Play.

SDL Trados Studio

A potential client once asked me if I use Trados. To date, I have never seen much need for sophisticated translation software to do my work, but I looked into it and I see the potential appeal.

Vaunted as "the world's leading translation software," SDL Trados has a different function from the other options in this list. Instead of a machine translation, it's actually a CAT (computer-assisted translation) tool, designed to support professional translation work. With over 250,000 users, it's the most used CAT tool. Some of the most prominent features include the following:

  • Project management—It offers a complete workspace for translation, reviewing, and editing, as well as compatibility with hundreds of languages and regional variants.
  • Translation memory—It builds a database by capturing your translations, allowing you to reutilize recurring sentences in future projects.
  • Terminology management—It provides the tools to organize a term base for not only words, but also acronyms, synonyms, and abbreviations. This software also allows you to establish rules for their use, promoting consistent and quality translations.
  • Machine translation—It can integrate Language Weaver, SDL BeGlobal, SDL LanguageCloud, and Google Translate.

Aside from a consensus that usage of CAT tools increases translation efficiency, there are a number of clients expecting (if not requiring) professionals to use one, as I attested to in my personal experience. Personally, I don't think it's mandatory by any means, but if you have a different opinion, there is a 30-day free trial available to let you decide if it's right for you.

Other utilities

  • Kanji Recognizer—This is a very handy tool. Just draw a kanji in a box, and the tool will try to recognize it. Also, it supports simplified Chinese characters.
  • imTranslator Comparison Tool—This extension of imTranslator provides simultaneous translations from PROMT, Google Translate, and Microsoft Translator. It can give you an idea of which one works best for the specific languages you're dealing with.

In closing

There are dozens of translation tools out there. I listed and discussed what I believe to be the best ones, but the list barely covers a fraction of what's out there, and there may even be a few options I haven't heard of. I can't stress this salient fact enough though: Machine translators can be helpful, but they do not replace human professionals. As Microsoft themselves put it:

Automatic machine translation is generally used where the quality-level requirement is not as stringent as where human translation is required. Use machine translation where the quantity of content, speed of content creation (such as user-generated content in blogs, forums, etc.), and budget (or lack thereof) make it impossible to use human translation. It caters to a segment of the market for translation needs that, thus far, could not be made economically feasible or could not be made available with a very short turnaround time.

Microsoft

As long as you know what you're getting and the limitations, translation tools take us one step closer to bringing the world together.

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