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How to Use Your Smartphone's Translator Apps

Google Translate, Apple Translate are increasingly powerful free tools to understand foreign languages

spinner image smiley face icons accompanied by the phrase 'thank you' in various languages
Getty Images


If you're feeling the urge to travel abroad, but it has been decades since you took high school Spanish, French or some other language, you probably could use some help.

Whether you’re reading a foreign menu, asking for directions, listening to a lecture or trying to converse with a native, that help is as close as your smartphone. The Google Translate app has been available for Android devices and the iPhone for about a dozen years now. But if you have an iPhone, you might also open the Apple Translate app that Apple unveiled in 2020; it’s baked into iPhones running iOS 14 or later.

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Both are free. While neither delivers perfect translations every time, they are increasingly powerful apps that under the right circumstances are magnifique.

spinner image a screenshot of google translating english to ukranian on the iphone
Ukrainian is one more than 100 languages that can be translated in the Google Translate app for both Apple and Android devices.

Google translates 108 languages

Google Translate lets you type and translate between 108 languages, or 59 even when you lack internet connectivity. The app can also translate text found in images across 94 languages, translate conversations in near real time in 71 languages, and recognize drawn text characters in 96. You can also create a phrasebook on your device.

What’s more: You'll not only see translations on the phone display but can hear pronunciations of the words and phrases.

The Google Translate interface differs on the Android and iOS versions of the app, but the basic functionality is the same. Start by choosing the languages you want to translate from and to. If your chosen language is supported, download the file onto your phone. That way you can use the translation features even when you’re offline.  

You have three main ways to use Google Translate:

  • Select Camera to translate the text it sees.
  • Go with Conversation mode to have a bilingual chat with a foreign speaker.
  • Choose Transcribe to translate words and phrases you either utter aloud or type.

On both iPhones and Androids you can enter text in the spaces provided inside the app or tap a microphone icon to speak or pick up someone else’s voice.

On an iPhone, I tapped Transcribe and then the microphone icon to translate recent comments from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky from Ukrainian to English.

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Translate a conversation

When you tap Conversation, two people can speak in turn, each by pressing a microphone button and watching words appear in both languages. While in this mode, you can also tap a Both button on the iPhone or an Auto button on Android to have the phone listen for both languages. This can be handy not only while traveling, but also if a loved one, friend or someone you've hired is more comfortable speaking in their native language, but you're not fluent.

On the iPhone if you tap Camera inside Google Translate, recognized text in the original language is overwritten by the app. You can also snap a picture and select the words you want to translate. Incidentally, in Camera mode on the iPhone, the Google Translate name changes to Google Lens, a feature within the broader Google app.

On Android if you tap Camera, you can tap an Instant button to immediately translate whatever words show up on the screen. Or you can tap Scan to have the phone scan and capture whatever is in front of the camera. Then drag your finger to highlight specific text.

Another option lets you tap Import to translate text from a photo already in your library.

spinner image a screenshot of google translating english to traditional chinese on android
In Google Translate, you can see a translation on the screen or tap the speaker icon to hear it read aloud.

Google keeps transcriptions

Google points out that any audio you record for translation purposes will be transmitted to the company for processing. And to help improve the service, Google may keep a transcription of a conversation for “a limited period of time.” Google also wants you to make sure you have consent from the people around you before you translate their words.

You’ll also need to make sure in device settings that you give Google Translate permission to access the microphone on your phone. On Android, open Settings, and tap Privacy. Turn on microphone access. On iOS, open Settings, tap Privacy and then Microphone. Enable the button next to Google Translate to turn on microphone access.

Within the settings of the Google Translate app itself, you can choose to block offensive words or change pronunciation speeds, though any of these speed settings do not apply in Conversation mode.

Apple translates 13 languages

The Apple Translate app supports far fewer languages than Google does, just 13 in total, including United States and United Kingdom versions of English and Chinese mainland and Taiwanese versions of Mandarin Chinese. All 13 can be downloaded for offline use.

spinner image a screenshot of apple translating english to spanish on the iphone
The face-to-face option in Apple Translate's Conversation mode lets each speaker see translations right side up.

As with Google, the audio and text you choose to have translated are sent to Apple’s servers for processing. Among Apple’s caveats: “Translate should not be relied on in circumstances where you could be harmed or injured, in high-risk situations, for navigation, or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition.”

Otherwise, the basic functionality is like Google’s — after choosing your languages, you can type text or tap a microphone to speak. And Apple also features a Conversation mode. You can display the interface as side-by-side or face-to-face, where two people directly opposite one another will each see spoken dialog right side up.

Live Text lives in many iPhones' cameras

On an iPhone, you can also translate signs and other text seen through the camera lens. This isn’t done directly through the Apple Translate app but rather the Live Text feature added with iOS 15. The feature is compatible with all iPhones dating to 2018’s Xr or Xs models.

If you have a supported model, launch the Camera app, and point it at what you want to translate. A yellow frame appears around detected text. Tap the circled icon with horizontal lines inside open brackets. It’s toward the bottom on the right when you hold the phone in vertical portrait mode or upper right when you hold it sideways horizontally. It will turn yellow. Swipe or tap to select the appropriate text and tap Translate, which you may have to swipe to get to.

Translation apps are extremely useful, but some of the time anyway, you can use your phone even more easily when you want to know how to say something in another language. Just ask Google Assistant on Android phones or Siri on an iPhone. They can tell you in French, say, that c’est la fin de l’article.

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