[Editor’s note: this review was written jointly by Michael Venables and Evan Predavec. Michael tested out the apps at home, and Evan did some on-location tests while traveling.]
Finally technology has caught up with Star Trek. Well, almost.
Instead of the handheld light saber-like device Captain Kirk used (er, will use in 2267) to communicate with the Companion in the Gamma Canaris system, we now have apps on the iPhone: SpeechTrans and Google Translate. I’m approaching this review drawing on my professional experience as a translator and interpreter, keeping in mind ease of use and functionality for the end user who wishes to communicate with alien — I mean, foreign — humans and who needs a mobile translation application.
Home Test (Michael Venables)
Both SpeechTrans and Google Translate use variations of voice recognition and machine translation technology in their applications. Both apps are similar in how well they transcribe my voice to English and then render a translation into the chosen language. Speech Trans offers 12 target languages that you can translate into and a voice synthesizer that reads them out loud. I made several English to French and English to Italian translation tests (as a fluent speaker I can verify the quality), pressing the red button each time (which I found annoying), and also did some French/Italian to English tests. The translations were mostly accurate, but you have to speak slowly and clearly. (Oddly, SpeechTrans has a USEng to UKEng translation available, but when I used words like “elevator” and “napkin,” which mean one thing in American English, they weren’t rendered as “lift” and “serviette,” as properly spoken in the Queen’s English.
Google Translate accepts voice input for 15 languages and produces translations in 57 supported languages. However, only 23 different languages can be read aloud with the speech synthesizer. Doing the same kinds of sample translations, I received decent results, similar to SpeechTrans in both accuracy and quality. Both programs had some difficulty with more complex, longer sentences. Again, keep in mind the voice recognition and machine translation only go so far. For quality, think Berlitz, not Hoshi Sato.
The “Post to Facebook” and “Post to Twitter” features in SpeechTrans work fine. I got error messages (trying three separate Facebook accounts) when trying to enable the “Facebook chat” feature, even after enabling “Get Facebook ID” to generate a Facebook username. Google Translate allows you to mark translated phrases as favorites. It also logs past translations, which I found to be a useful feature. And, thank Google—it doesn’t have any button to press!
At $19.99 for the SpeechTrans application versus Google Translate for free, I have to go with Google Translate. Even though it has fewer features for the user, it’s the better offering for the free value.
Road Test (Evan Predavec)
Translation requires a quick internet connection. That became an immediate issue when I tried the services out on the Berlin underground railway. Patchy internet access made all attempts useless. Even when I had internet access there was too much background noise for the services to be of any use in translating announcements — which would certainly be useful.
Back up above ground internet access is not a technical problem. Of course I’m not in my home country so that internet access could potentially be a financial problem for a user — but I’ve long since dealt with that issue and cost is not an issue I’m facing in Berlin.
My next real issue is when to use the services in any really practical fashion. When buying a ticket to the science museum? When ordering lunch in the cafe? In both cases I can point to what I want and make myself understood much more quickly than I can talk to the iPhone and get a translation. I have an issue with a surly waiter in the cafe but there’s no way I’m going to ask him to talk into my iPhone so I can understand what he’s saying to me. You see this is no Babel fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with instantaneous translation. And without that, its utility in a real-time conversation is extremely limited.
Both services are more useful when translating some of the signs in the Museum. Yet, even here there’s a practical issue. My German is OK, but when I read the signs into the systems I get very mixed responses. What I really want, what would be completely useful, would be the ability to point the camera at a sign and get a translation. Now that I’d pay for in a flash.
Translating the menu at lunch is a better experience. I’ve got some time and I’m only translating a few words. Being able to talk to the services means I don’t have to deal with the iPhone’s fiddly keyboard and I don’t have any issues about how to type in the appropriate accents, etc. But this works well partly because I know how to pronounce the German words, even if I don’t know their meanings. I doubt I’d get anywhere near as good a response with Portuguese which I cannot pronounce, or with Chinese with I can’t even begin to read aloud. Again what I really want is text recognition and translation.
The Google Translate app has a superior interface and functionality in my view. SpeechTrans opens up with a splash screen which takes a while to get past. Then it defaults to asking you which languages you want to translate from and to. There does not appear to be any way to save a default language set so you always start off with English-to-English and have to adjust the settings. In contrast Google Translate remembers what your last language set was. Google also defaults to showing you your last search that means you can do some pre-work on a phrase and have it ready to run. You can pull up old translations on SpeechTrans but it takes additional key presses. I like the fact Google does not require you to press anything to indicate you’ve finished speaking — one fewer key-press. One fewer time to remove my glove in cold Berlin.
The final nail in SpeechTrans’ coffin for me was that it seems buggy. It doesn’t play nice with fast app switching especially if there are internet connection problems. I had to restart the app several times to get past hangs. Not the end of the world, but when the free app doesn’t have these problems…
Given the above I recommend Google Translate on general terms. It’s not that it’s more useful, it’s just that it’s free and I can’t see paying for a service with limited utility. Overall the free Google Translate app has a cleaner, smoother interface and seems to work with fewer problems. Given the price, it has to get my recommendation.