Saturday, February 28, 2015

What you can do with Google Translate on your smartphone

Scripophily catalogues in German, reference books in Russian, English magazines .. and you are familiar with neither one of these languages. Still, there is that particular, promising, antique share certificate described in this non native language. Persistent as you may be, you feel that a language should not be a barrier for your broad interests. And right you are !

Google Translate icons

Google Translate for mobile translates in 90 languages
You can use Google Translate for mobile to solve the situation. This mobile app - a computer program (application) running on smartphones and other mobile devices - combines your phone's camera with two software technologies :
  • optical character recognition (OCR), a piece of software converting images of text into computer characters
  • machine translation, software that translates text or speech from one natural language to another.
Sounds complicated, it is, but in this case it is easy to use. Does it work ? Let's find out.

Translation in 6 steps
As an example, we'll use the following, extensive, Italian catalogue, which was published by Portafoglia Storico. Our goal is to translate the text below the certificate on the page to the right. Double-click the images below for  more details.

Assuming Google Translate for mobile is installed on your device, start up the app and go through the following steps :

1. Choose the source language
In this case it is Italian. Use your fingertips to tap, scroll and select from  the list of source languages.

2. Choose the target language
For this example, similarly select English.

3. Aim your phone's camera to the page, and tap the camera icon. 
Tip: If text is printed in smaller columns you can hold the camera vertically in line with the page. In contrary, when text is printed over the entire page width, as is the case here, it is easier to turn the camera 90 degrees.

4. Try to fit the entire text on your camera screen and tap Scan
At this point your camera scans the text, and the OCR software will try to recognize separate words.

Note: Just before you tap the Scan icon, the software will try to instantly translate and show the result on your phone's screen. This feature was designed for instant translation of simple messages and signs in public places. Just ignore this behavior and tap Scan to proceed.

5. When the scan operation is completed, the system shows you all the words it has recognized. Tap the Select All Words hint, to let the system translate all the words.

Note: If only one or a few words need to be translated, then you can tap and swipe with your finger to select these words.

6. The software now shows you the first words of the translation. Just tap the  >  arrow icon to see the entire translated text. 

Italian to English machine translation with mobile app from Google
Italian to English - text in a single page-wide column
Not a good result, but individual words can help you to understand the general content. 

The results are mixed for our purpose
Google Translate for mobile works well when translating simple message boards in public places. But translating "technical" texts is much more difficult. Double-click the image above. It shows an Italian to English translation. The result contains English words, but sentences are not accurately translated. The translated words can help you to understand the general content. It is up to you to make up something coherent from the result.

In general these are some findings :
  • Some languages are better translated than others
    • I had relatively satisfying results with French, Norwegian, and sometimes Chinese.
    • Some languages tend to use longer sentences than others. This makes it more  difficult for translating a text correctly.
  • Text printed in small columns translate better than text in a single page wide column
    • Check the image below, where the app translated a short entry in a Chinese catalogue. That worked rather well. Interesting, catalogues often describes lots in multiple columns.
    • Texts printed in multiple columns tend to consist of shorter, simpler sentences that are easier to translate by software.

Chinese to English machine translation with mobile app from Google
Chinese to English - text in  two columns
Short phrases in columns yield good results.
PS : Notice the dates, similar to Japanese dates, see more here 

Russion to English machine translation
Russian to English - text in a single page-wide column
Not a good result, but individual words can help you to understand the general content.

Time is on our side !
I am sure that, in the near future, we will use technology that allows us to scan textual information, translate it, and have it projected directly on our eye lens by means of special glasses, contact lenses, an implanted chip, all within a blink of an eye. But for the time being, we'll have to do it with Google Translate on our mobiles. 


Related links

P.S. Signed the Guest book yet ?