One of the most comical situations I’ve been in with machine translation was when a colleague and I went to see a local tourist site in a part of China where people don’t tend to speak English. We were trying to buy tickets with the help of Google Translate but for some reason, no one could understand what we wanted. I think they were telling us where we needed to go, and we just kept repeating that we want to buy tickets. Then more and more people gathered around to help and we were all typing furiously on our phones. After 15 minutes we finally managed to get the tickets.
It was in China that I originally got the idea that machine translation would be helpful while traveling. Some colleagues and I were trying to work out something in Chinese when one of them pulled out her phone, translated, and we quickly figured it out. Before that I’d used Google Translate rarely, just to check individual words while I was studying or something.
Nowadays I use the Google Translate app very often. My work in the international travel industry means I travel to a lot of foreign destinations, spending 1-5 days in each. In many locations I get by just fine with English, but especially in China and Japan, I find myself pulling out my phone and using Google Translate many times a day.
One of the main places I use it is in restaurants and it seems to be a very common thing to do that. Especially in China, the minute they realize we don’t share a language, they pull out a phone and start trying to communicate through machine translation. In Japan it’s kind of the opposite – they won’t be the first to start trying with Google Translate. I think they’re quite shy, and maybe a bit embarrassed that they don’t know English. The Chinese seem to want to understand so they jump right in and don’t worry about potentially embarrassing situations.
I actually know a little Chinese so might get by on that and body language, but I also eat vegetarian so often need to explain things a bit more. If I try to say ‘No meat!’ with my few words of Chinese, they might only understand the word ‘meat’ and bring me a meat dish. (In fact that has happened and I was presented with octopus, beef and shrimp. Perfect.) Better to translate what I’m trying to say on the phone.
Most of the time I type what I want to say into the app and then it translates. If the person looks confused then I try writing it again in a slightly different way. Once in a while I use the voice thing where you talk into the phone’s speaker and it translates, but mostly I like the typing better. Somehow with the voice thing I’m less sure if it’s correct or not. Sometimes I use both: first let them read the translated text, then listen to a voice translation.
I also use the Google Translate app in stores to read labels and signs. One of my favorite things to do abroad is to visit local grocery stores, I love spending time in them. And, of course, since I’m often at a destination for several days, I need to buy some very normal, everyday things. Or I might shop for clothing and then I want to good, natural materials. What I use in these situations is that translation app function where I take a photo of a text – a label or a sign – and it tries to translate it for me.
The app has even been helpful at work on occasion. Like when a customer speaks a language I don’t know, or even a dialect of a language that is hard to understand, but they really need something. Then we have sometimes used Google Translate to communicate and resolve their issues.
I would say that my success rate with using apps to communicate with other people is fairly high, maybe 80-100% Usually I get what I want and they understand me, at least I think so. With the picture-taking method I’d say the rate of success is more like 50/50. Sometimes I get a clue what something’s about but sometimes…it’s just random words. The photo thing is just not that good yet.
I always use English with these machine translation apps. I just think that my own language is not a good language to translate with. It seems to me that English is the key to machine translating. Or should I say it this way: if you understand English, it’s much easier for you to use it.