Business travelers around the world can usually count on getting by with English as the lingua franca of the global marketplace. But to really connect with people in another country requires the ability to communicate in their native language.
For business meetings and negotiations, it's important to include a professional interpreter to ensure clear communication. Likewise, machine translation is fine for casual use, but for mission-critical documents, a professional translator is the way to go. But for casual conversations, and for navigating off the beaten track, language translation apps are a useful tool.
There are dozens of translation apps available for Apple and Android devices. These range from simple interfaces that require the user to type in a word or phrase to “smart" apps that can translate the spoken word on-the-fly. Among the key features desired by business travelers are translation accuracy and the ability to use an app without an internet connection.
—Greg Sandler, contributor, OPEN Forum
User reviews in both iTunes and the Google Play store provide insight into the pros and cons of the many translation apps on the market. The below apps include features that go way beyond simple translation, including the ability to translate a two-way conversation in real time.
One of the most cutting edge apps available is also one that has been around for more than a decade: Google Translate. This free app, with more than 5.6 million reviews in the Google Play store, is now using artificial intelligence (AI) to help power its translation engine. The app is also available in the iTunes store.
The Google Translate app uses neural machine translation (NMT) to increase accuracy. This AI technology also enables mobile users to use the app even when they are unable to connect to WiFi or cellular service.
“Google Translate offers neural machine translation in 96 languages in online mode, and offers NMT in 59 languages in offline mode," says Mallory Richards, a company spokesperson. “Being able to offer this highly accurate model of translation on mobile and browser is a key differentiator for our product."
The app also has the ability to translate conversations using speech recognition technology. This feature, which is standard on the leading translation apps, can be very useful for business travelers. Google Translate also works using voice dictation or by translating words contained in photographs.
Looking ahead, Google Translate will be accessible on all headphones that are optimized to work with Google Assistant, on both Android and Apple iOS devices. That means that bluetooth-enabled headphones will facilitate on-the-fly translation when connected to compatible device.
Another translation app available for both Apple and Android devices is Microsoft Translator. This free translation app covers more than 60 languages, and can handle translation of text, voice and conversations.
Phrasebooks and pronunciation guides are available, and the app supports both online and offline translation. Other features include a split-screen mode for two participants having a bilingual conversation, and support for multi-lingual conversations between up to 100 users at a time.
TripLingo is another popular tool for international business travelers. The app, which has more than 300,000 users worldwide, offers a voice translator, a phrasebook and learning tools. The phrasebook includes basics, such as greetings, as well as 2,000 commonly used business phrases. There is a free version of the app for Android and Apple devices, but premium features require a subscription, which starts at $9.99.
“TripLingo started out as a kind of phrasebook for the 21st Century," says Jesse Maddox, the company's founder and CEO. “The app also has something called the Slang Slider. For each phrase, users get different options for saying it."
Maddox says one of the most valuable uses for a translation app is that it helps travelers connect with people in other countries. Using an appropriate slang phrase, he adds, often makes people laugh, which can help create an instant rapport.
TripLingo's phrase options include formal, casual, slang and crazy. For example, the formal French translation for “how are you" is “comment allez-vous?" The “crazy" translation is “ça roule?" which literally means “things rolling for you?" Of course, in business situations it may be best to stay with more formal translation options.
While TripLingo is available for individual users, the company's focus is on providing customized versions of its app for business travelers. Maddox says the company currently has more than 30 corporate clients. The branded corporate version of the app includes extra features, such as access to travel agency and emergency contacts.
iTranslate and Speak & Translate
The iTranslate Translator & Dictionary app, which boasts more than 80 million downloads, includes the ability to translate text or start voice-to-voice conversations in more than 100 languages. A basic version of the app is free, while the voice and offline modes are available as part of a monthly subscription.
The app, available for the Android and Apple platforms, is published by IAC Applications, which also owns the Speak & Translate app.
The Speak & Translate app, available only for Apple devices, includes both free and premium versions. In-app purchase options range from $3.99 to $29.99. It can handle 117 languages for text translation, and 54 for voice. It integrates with Apple speech recognition technology, and supports voice commands. Most languages require an internet connection, but the app does work in offline mode for 10 languages.
Alexander Marktl, CEO of iTranslate, says translation apps can help business travelers with “everything from navigating your way to a meeting location, ordering at a restaurant to preparing for a presentation with clients who speak another language." Moreover, he adds, “it's a tool that can help you every step of the way, from when your plane lands until you're headed home."
Choosing the right app is a personal decision that depends on what features are most important, what languages are available and, ultimately, on ease of use.
Business travelers planning to use a translation app on their next trip should test its functionality before leaving home—that's sure to help make it easier for globetrotters to use a mobile device as their own personal translator.