Google Translate App Adds Real-time Conversation Mode

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The Google Translate App recently saw an impressive update: users can now have a real-time conversation with someone who speaks another language.

The feature included in the update, referred to as “conversation mode,” not only acts as a real-time translator for conversations, but also comes with a “camera translation” mode that allows users to decipher words found on signs.

“I’m passionate about translation,” says 26-year-old product manager Julie Cattiau, who has worked at Google the past three-and-a-half years. “With our new app, we’re able to detect the languages being spoken so you don’t even have to press the translate button on the phone each time you talk. It’s now so much more natural.”

The free app from Google works by selecting the two languages you want the app to translate between, and tapping the microphone to speak. The translation will show up as text in addition to being spoken aloud by a computer-generated voice played out of the phone’s speaker.  The phone can then be handed off to the other person to respond in their own language, and Google will translate that as well.

The “word lens” mode is used by tapping the camera icon within the app, placing the viewfinder over any text the user wishes to translate, and then swiping a finger over the words.  A translation will then appear on the screen superimposed over the photo.  The mode works without Wi-Fi, unlike the conversation mode, meaning travelers can make use of the tool while visiting new cities and countries, reports Patrick May for The San Jose Mercury-News.

“Often the hardest part of traveling is navigating the local language,” Google developers say in a blog post about the new app. “If you’ve ever asked for ‘pain’ in Paris and gotten funny looks, confused ‘embarazada’ (pregnant) with ‘embarrassed’ in Mexico, or stumbled over pronunciation pretty much anywhere, you know the feeling.”

While the translate app has been able to convert speech to text for some time, this is the first time that it can do so for a conversation in real time.  Prior versions translated one entry at a time with no ability for an automatic speak-back function.  A photo translation has been available for the Android version of the app for awhile, although Google says the update is quicker and easier to use, writes Nathan Olivarez-Giles for The Wall Street Journal.

The app does have limitations concerning which languages are available for use. The camera function only offers English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish, although developers hope to add more languages soon.  However, the conversation mode works for 38 languages.