The thrill of traveling to new places is unmatched. Visiting locations around the world you never saw yourself visiting is one of the true thrills of the modern age, and the relatively-low cost of airplane tickets makes it easy for anyone with some extra cash and time to visit France, Germany, Japan, or any other country that peaks their interest. The only problem with travel comes with the language barrier. Sure, you could try to learn the local language before your trip, but learning languages is hard. If you have absolutely no familiarity with the language in the region, it can be difficult to devote the amount of time necessary to learning languages unfamiliar to your own home area. Of course, if you’re going to an area without any kind of knowledge of the language, or a guide to help you find locations, order food, and to ask where the bathroom is, you’re going to find yourself in a tough spot pretty quickly.
Here’s the good news: if you’re short of the time necessary to learn the native language of where you’re headed, you can use your smartphone for the next-best thing. Translation applications have been big since the 2000s, when cunning high school students tried to translate assignments every year using sites on the internet (it never worked very well, considering how easy it was to tell the assignment had been translated by a computer). Despite the early flaws of translation services, the ability to translate a piece of text or a phrase on the fly has improved a lot over the last twenty years. Thanks to improve machine learning and algorithms, translation services have never been more powerful. Whether you’re looking to translate a sign in real time using augmented reality, communicating with someone in another language by using your phone as a central hub of knowledge, or just for translating words you run into in everyday life.
Translation apps are a dime a dozen on Android, but if you’re going to be relying on the app to get you through the day while travelling, you’ll want to make sure you’re using the best apps from the Play Store. While there’s no one-size-fits-all translation app, we think there’s a few reasons you should take a good look at the offerings available on the Play Store. There are several great apps dedicated to making your language legible to anyone on the planet, so whether you’re speaking to a friend in a new language, trying to translate important signs and warnings, or just curious about what a specific word means, you’ll be ready to translate your words and phrases. These are the best translation apps for Android.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Google’s translation offering is one of the best experiences you can have on Android. Google Translate has been around in some form since 2006, first launching as a web app before rolling out to iOS and Android as dedicated clients. As with most online translation experiences, Google Translate has seen its fair share of criticism, originally pulling its translations from transcripts provided by the United Nations and European Parliament and translating one word at a time. However, since 2016, Google has begun using their own Neural Machine Translation system, allowing for the app to translate full sentences at once for better accuracy.
So while you shouldn’t expect perfection from Google Translate—or any translation app, really—Google is able to offer one of the best mobile translation experiences we’ve seen so far. It’s not perfect, and even in our tests, we ran into some minor translation flaws. But compared to some of the other offerings on the Play Store, Translate offers some pretty great features, allowing you to connect with people all over the world with little complication. More importantly, however, is Google’s ability to offer you an experience designed to streamline your connect to translating language. Upon installing and opening the app for the first time, you’re asked to set up Translate with the language you’ll be translating most often. This automatically downloads the language to your phone, allowing you to translate words and phrases wherever you are, regardless of your internet connection.
With the setup process complete, you’ll be greeted by the option to enter text to translate automatically into your preferred language. You’ll also see a notification for your language downloading, and the prompt to take a tour of Google Translate. Tapping on the option to translate text will automatically open a prompt to allow you to translate the text on your device. There are a multitude of ways to translate these options, including by using your camera, handwriting with your finger or a stylus, translating a voice quote, or using the conversation feature within the app. Each of these are a major feature within the app, so let’s quickly describe what the options allow you to accomplish:
- Camera: One of Google Translate’s marquee features, this option opens the camera on your device to allow you to take a photo of text in writing anywhere around you. This is most useful for short phrases, not pages of text—think signs around the city, not a full-length novel. When you hold up your phone, you’ll see the sign translated in real time on your display, using augmented reality to translate the sign in front of your eyes. This isn’t a perfect method, but by taking a photo of the sign, you can copy the language from the photo to better translate the content. All told, it’s a very cool feature and one of our favorite parts of Google Translate.
- Handwriting: Far more simple of a utility than the AR-based camera, handwriting allows you to write words in one language using your finger or a stylus, and translates them automatically to the language of your choosing.
- Conversation: Another excellent addition to the Translate app, the conversation feature allows to people to communicate through a single phone by handing the device back and forth. Each side of the conversation gets their own microphone icon, which you tap back and forth to translate the conversation (or you can choose to use the automatic mode, which detects when one person is done talking and switches back and forth). Like the rest of Translate, it’s not perfect, but it does allow for two people with a language barrier to communicate. Likewise, using the app also allows you to avoid accidentally saying the wrong phrase, since some forgiveness will be issued by the native speaker when they see the app is translating, not you directly. Google has also included a card here that uses the native speaker’s language to tell them that you’ll be communicating with your phone. It’s a nice touch.
- Voice: A pretty straightforward feature, Voice capture allows you to translate a sentence from one language to another without the real-time feature of Conversation. The best feature of Voice is the ability to playback the translated content in audio form for the person you’re speaking with. Voice is a bit more flexible than the Conversation mode, allowing you to have an asynchronous conversation or to quickly fire off a translated message to someone.
Back at the home screen, you’ll also manage to find a history of your translations below this list. Next to these translations, you’ll find a small star icon that allows you to favorite each listing, adding it to your bookmarks list. That’s it for the home screen, which is largely used for quick translations, those four options above, and your history, but Translate doesn’t end there.
Tapping on the menu button in the top-left hand corner, you’ll load a list of several options hidden from the main display inside Translate. Your Phrasebook is the bookmarks option we just mentioned, where you’ll find the bookmarked translations from your history saved for good. This way, if you need to, you can always load your list of translated words and phrases, saved offline for immediate use. You can even play back the translations of these phrases, as if you had just typed the words into the app. Phrasebook is a nice addition, but as we’ll see with our runner-up below, it’s not the best a translation app has to offer.
SMS translation is an interesting option. Once you give Google Translate access to view your SMS messages, it will automatically scan your received messages, loading your most recent text message from your contacts list. You can select any text from the list to automatically translate the content, but keep in mind that abbreviations and other misspellings in texts may be mistranslated or ignored altogether. You also can’t see your contacts names here, only the related phone numbers, which seems like an odd omission. Still, it’s a neat feature, even if its a bit lacking.
Finally, you’ll also find options to download additional languages offline for translations in areas that lack the ability to connect to the web. You can download as many languages as you want, and Google Translate has a large library of languages that make it easy to ensure you’re always able to communicate with the people and places around you. The settings menu has options to control your data usage, your speech input, and a “tap to translate” feature that works throughout your phone by using a notification on your device.
Really, Google Translate wins the top spot on this list thanks its solid translation functions, even if the app screws up some basic translations along the way. (For whatever reason, the app was constantly confused by the difference between “Je m’appelle” and “Mon nom est” in French; the former is used in everyday conversations to introduce people, while the latter is incredibly formal and barely used in day-to-day life). The app has plenty of incredible features, including offline translation and augmented-reality camera translations that make it feel magical to use, even in 2018. Translate isn’t breaking ground here, but it is one of the most reliable mobile translation apps you can use today.
Let’s start this review off with some superlatives: Microsoft Translator honestly blew our expectations away. While we’ve been long-time users of Google Translate and have therefore come to rely on the service for everything from homework in high school, to overseas trips, to translating web pages online, Microsoft Translator has slowly grown into a fantastic competing service, first offered as Bing Translator in 2007 before launching the Microsoft rebranding for its mobile and user-facing applications. In this time, Microsoft has managed to build an excellent application that would impress anyone looking for a proper mobile translator. If you’ve tried Google Translate and it’s failed to impress, this might just be the app for you.
The first thing you’ll notice when comparing Microsoft Translator to Google Translate is the visual design. Google uses a lot of white in their apps, with flat, card-like user interfaces to create a paper-like design. Microsoft Translator, on the other hand, looks like something that would fit right into Windows 10, with semi-opaque frosted backgrounds and colorful displays that fit within the app to create a clean appearance. Like Google Translate, the app opens with an option to start translating words right away, detecting your language and allowing you to choose your destination language. Like Google Translate, it struggles with certain phrases and words (“My name is” really trips up these services, which prefer to translate the literal meaning instead of the general “I’m called,” as we detailed above with Google Translate).
Yes, the basic translation here works about as well as you would expect from a translation app, but it’s the other features in Microsoft Translator that really impressed us. Once you leave the general translation entry field, you’re given access to some more general content with the app. You can use the voice feature to translate your words to a written translation, as you can with Google’s app. Tapping on the microphone icon activates your device, which listens for speaking and translates it into the language of your choice. You can control the input and output languages at the bottom of the device’s display, and you can also quickly switch into Translator’s own two-person conversation mode by tapping on the dual-mic icon in the bottom-right corner of the display. More on that later.
The keyboard icon launches the standard key-based entry field for translating typed and text-based communication from within the app. You can type whatever you’re looking to say to another person, and the translation will appear on screen. You can pin the text, share it, use the speakers on your phone to communicate it, or make it large, similar to a flashcard, to show the other native speaker. It’s fine, but we did find the live translation on Google Translate to be a bit better in terms of accuracy. Then there’s the camera icon, which launches the viewfinder on your display to help you translate words and sentences around you. Unlike Google’s app, the camera can’t automatically translate phrases using augmented reality; you’ll need to snap a photo to view the translated sentences. Likewise, the text doesn’t automatically modify itself, instead appearing as an overlay on your camera. It’s useful, but it’s not nearly as advanced as Google’s camera.
Our favorite feature of Translator, and the one that nearly caused us to give Translator the top spot on this list, is Microsoft’s own version of Phrasebook. Unlike Google’s Phrasebook shortcut, which allows you to save and bookmark translations performed within the app, Microsoft has built in a fully-function quick shortcut guide to the app. At the top of the list, you’ll find a favorites section, which acts like Google’s own version of Phrasebook. Below that are eight preset categories that have options for quickly allowing you to ask questions and say phrases in the language of your choice. This is an incredibly useful feature, because it takes out any user or computer error and plays back the correct translation (for example, “my name is” is correctly translated in French as “Je m’appelle ___.”
Using Phrasebook, you can both see the spelling of these phrases (along with a pronunciation guide below the phrase), play it back using the volume icon below each listing, and can edit the phrase by hitting the keyboard icon. You can also add phrases to your Favorites list by hitting the star icon next to each listing. The amount of easy-to-access translations that are listed here is honestly astonishing. While it isn’t surprising to find greetings and general requests or questions, the categories allow you to get through nearly any situation you could find yourself in overseas? Trying to tell a waiter your food restrictions or allergies? You’ll find an option for that within the dining section. Need to purchase a SIM card for your smartphone, or looking to borrow a charger for your laptop? The technology section has you covered. It’s genuinely remarkable how much the app is able to cover in terms of what you would need when traveling, and while it certainly isn’t as flashy as something like augmented reality camera software, it’s the most useful piece of software in either of our top picks.
Translator offers two different versions of conversation-based translating. The first, accessible through the previously-mentioned voice-enabled chat options, allows you to communicate back and forth by holding down two different microphone icons. It’s a more-rudimentary implementation of the same feature we saw in Google Translate. It works fine, but it lacks auto switch and feels a bit more cumbersome to actually use. However, the second method is far more interesting. By tapping on the Conversation icon from the main display inside of Translator, you can activate syncing with other devices that also have the Translator app. You can join a conversation by asking the host for the code, or you can start your own conversation to hand out the code. Conversations works a lot like an instant messaging feature, only is auto-translates your conversations. It’s a really interesting idea that allows for some creative communication—assuming, of course, that you can find someone who also has the Microsoft Translator app.
A few other notable features: your offline languages can be viewed within the drop-down menu on the device. Unlike Google Translate, you can see the size of each language, and no languages are automatically downloaded for your use. However, you can download as many as you want, and at only a couple hundred megabytes each, they don’t take up too much room on your phone. In the settings menu, you can find options to translate and auto-play profanity (this is disabled by default) and to speak your translations. You can also disable automatic language updates if you wish, though they’re rather useful overall. Finally, history can be viewed from the main display in the bottom-left corner, opposite the Phrasebook icon, and your history can be cleared from within settings.
Overall, Microsoft has built themselves a serious competitor to Google Translate here, an application that challenges Google’s dominance in this arena. Translator is a solid app, with a unique and modern design language that looks and feels good to use. It’s translations aren’t always up to par with the excellence we’ve seen over the last decade from Google Translate, but Microsoft has created one of the most useful tools we’ve seen in our translating tests with the addition of Phrasebook. The ability to look up key phrases at any time, and even play them back to another person, can’t be underplayed, even if it isn’t quite as flashy as something like the augmented reality camera tools included in Translate. If you’re only going to use one translator application on your device, by all means, pick Google’s offering. But if you’re looking for something different, or you don’t mind keeping two apps around, Microsoft Translator is a great addition to your phone.
We’ll give Translate this: it actually has some solid translation abilities, accurately translating phrases like “My name is” and “I’m going to the store to buy some milk” without much difficulty. It’s unclear what service Translate (yes, the name is confusing and rather plain), but it works well. The general appearance is solid as well, with a large translation icon in the center of the display and the top and bottom of the screen dedicated to the two versions of phrases. There’s no flashy features here, though you can play back the vocal version of your translated content, with better vocals than Microsoft Translator offered us. Sharing your translation to a messaging app is an option as well, with shortcuts for Facebook, Messenger, and Whatsapp along the bottom of the screen (along with a generic share icon). There are ads in both banner and full-screen variety, and internet access is required to use the app, but if you can get over both of those limitations, Translate is a solid third-party alternative to Google and Microsoft’s apps.
Naver Papago is one of the newest apps on this list, having only launched in the summer of 2017. As such, it’s not quite as advanced as some of the older apps on this list, though the backend of this app is actually fairly modern. Naver Papago uses a neural network to learn from its mistakes and to improve translations as you use the app. The visual design is also great, probably featuring some of the best visuals on this list. Unfortunately, because this app is so new, it also is fairly limited in terms of available languages. Outside of Spanish and French, there’s really only Asian-based languages (Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc.) within the app. If we’re being honest, the translation skills in Naver Papago also leave something to be desired, though it’s unclear if it would get better over time as the neural network learned from us. Beyond that, there are some solid features, including a conversation mode and the ability to translate text in photos, but it’s best feature is probably the lack of ads or in-app purchases.
Translate Voice, another generically-named translation app on the Play Store, is an additional offering that we though users would really enjoy. Despite some dated screenshots on the Play Store, the app actually looks pretty great in day to day use, with an Android-esque appearance that looks solid on the list. The app is a bit messy, however, largely thanks to its advertising surrounding the translations. The main home screen of Translate Voice has two different banner ads, and even exiting the app by hitting Back forces you to go through a review prompt and a full screen advertisement. You can remove ads by signing up for Premium, but that features a monthly subscription and considering the features that you can get from Google Translate or Microsoft Translator, it’s probably better to stick with them as long as you’re fine with their terms of service. Translate Voice also had some rough translations, with us (including some basic mistakes), so generally speaking, it might be best to stay with those big-name brands here.
If you’re the type of person who only needs the occasional translation, and may not need an entire app dedicated to checking a single word or sentence, you may want to consider checking out Google Assistant. If you’re using a phone running Android 6.0 or above, it’s probably already on your phone, accessible through the Play Store app or by pressing and holding on the home button on your device. Thanks to the power of Google Assistant, you can ask Google to translate specific words or sentences to English or another alternate language, type words and phrases into Google Assistant to automatically translate content on your device, and even ask Google to say phrases in the language of your choosing for playing back to the locals in your area. If you’re doing a lot of translating or travelling, it’s probably a good idea to keep Google Translate or Microsoft Translate on your device. That said, for those who rarely have to translate more than a few words, letting Google Assistant do the work for you is ideal.