Translation apps and online translation tools have been around for some time now. New additions to the technology include camera/image translation tools that are available for both Android and Apples devices. Are they reliable? Not really, if they are to be used professionally, but in most cases they are not.
They are primarily aimed at the amateur tourism and visitor market. For these purposes, the apps are as good as the translation technology used. For amateur purposes, in most cases, they are adequate enough, taking into consideration that they can produce some astounding errors at times!
How a Camera/Image Translation App works
The app is an extension of an already existing machine translation tool, like Google Translate or iTranslate. The basic principle is that you turn on the app, point the mobile device’s camera lens at a sign in a language that you want to translate and hit a button. The app ‘reads’ the sign and translates it automatically using the translation tool and then converts it into text which appears on the screen of the tablet or mobile phone of the user.
There are obvious basic limitations to where and how the app can be used which are unrelated to the question of its reliability. The typical use would be for someone on holiday or just visiting a foreign country and is not capable of understanding the language there. They see a sign in their hotel or on a building and haven’t a clue what it means. They whip out their cell phone or tablet and point it at the sign and use the app to translate what is written on it.
It’s great for those people who come from countries whose written languages are in totally different scripts from the place they are visiting. Take Chinese tourists, for instance. There are more and more of them and they are going everywhere that takes their fancy. Let’s say they take a trip to Austria and spend time visiting the Tyrol. All the signs are in German, which is in Latin script. The visitors are only familiar with their own Chinese characters. Wherever they go, the app is useful in directing them around towns and cities and even interpreting information displays at sights of interest.
Not long ago, the author of this blog made a visit to Incheon in Korea. On arrival in downtown Incheon, all alone, she was confronted with signs everywhere in Korean – a language that is totally different from English. Because of the unique Korean characters, it was totally impossible to guess what any of the signs said. This is where one of these camera translation apps would have been so useful. Unfortunately, they weren’t available then.
The Limits of the Technology
The main limit for the camera/image translation app is the amount of text that can be translated at any one time. It would be useless at present for chunks of text, say in a book. The limitations and degree of reliability are twofold. First, the actual device itself must be capable of clearly reading the text and coordinating with the app to be able to process the words ready for translation. The more text there is, the smaller the text will appear in the camera screen and this imposes a limit on the app’s ability to read the text.
Secondly, the translation technology itself is a major limitation. The whole app’s reliability is only as good as the translation tool. This is another reason why the app is at present only reasonably reliable for small chunks of text. The more text the technology has to cope with, the more likely it will mistranslate parts of it.
It would be impractical at present to use any of the camera apps to reliably translate a whole document, such as a birth or marriage certificate or passport. These documents are often the bread and butter of professional translation agencies and machine translation is just not reliable enough yet to take over from human translation. One can see the potential advantages of the technology in the future. If the image conversion part of it is improved as well as the machine translation technology then there is enormous potential for document translation, even if the translated material is processed by a human proof-reader to eliminate any obvious mistakes.
Examples of Camera Translation Apps
For a limited number of languages at present Google Translate’s visual translation upgrade that was acquired by Google through its purchase of the World Lens app allows instant translation using visual conversion from image to text for 6 languages. These include English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian. You don’t even need an internet connection if you have an Android device.
Yandex Translate is available for iPhone users and works in the same way as the Google app for Apple devices offline in the same languages as above.