Learning a foreign language is one of the best things you can do for yourself. After a crash course in Spanish or French, you can communicate with millions of other people. You learn the nuances of their culture. You develop your cognitive prowess and stave off mental illness.
But even if you spoke 17 languages, you might still show up in Latvia or New Delhi and have no idea what people are saying. Our world is home to more than 2,000 major tongues, and if you like to travel, you'll inevitably encounter one you've never studied.
Luckily, digital translators have become more useful and accurate than ever. Some are designed for your desktop, others for your phone. Some focus on text, others on speech. There are many companies developing this kind of software, but here are five of the most useful technologies out there. Whatever your translation needs, these apps are designed to handle a variety of situations muy rápidamente.
Bing Translator vs. Google Translate
Naturally, the two biggest computer companies in the world have been fighting tête-à-tête for the most effective translation service. Most people swear by Google Translator or Bing Translator, although a lot of people use both. If you've ever studied a foreign language, you won't be surprised to learn that some languages translate more easily than others – and sometimes not the languages you expect. (Once it's been filtered through a computer, Spanish sounds surprisingly clunky in English, for example, but German often translates smoothly).
Unlike the rest of the software on our list, these two services are very effective for very long texts. There is a word limit, but if you're patient, you could copy and paste an entire Russian technical manual, or translate all of Montaigne's essays.
For years, Skype has been the go-to interface for international communication. Backpackers video-call their parents, immigrants talk with their families back home, and basic services are all free. But Skype has broken new ground with its multi-language translation feature, which can take real-time conversation and (almost) instantly translate it into another language.
The translator can also be configured for hard-of-hearing users. Skype most recently added such difficult-to-learn languages as Arabic and Russian to their linguistic bevy. This is most useful for contacting friends in other countries or holding multilingual one-on-one meetings.
Quest Visual's "Word Lens" is the ultimate 21st Century party trick: Users can raise their smartphones to a printed sign, and the app will magically recreate the letters in your own language. Crazier still, the translated image will even mimic the font and style of the original text.
Word Lens was first released in 2010, but the augmented reality app is still as jaw-dropping as ever. Not surprisingly, Google bought Quest Visual to incorporate the groundbreaking technology into its own Google Translate system. Incredibly, the app functions very well offline.
It really doesn't get more straightforward than this: You meet someone who doesn't speak your language. You open iTranslate on your phone and speak into it. The phone translates your sentence, and it can even recite the translation aloud. Then the other person replies, and so on. Portable and well reviewed, iTranslate is perhaps the closest thing to the "Star Trek" dream of a universal translator.
The app also translates as text, so if the robotic voice is hard for a new friend to understand, they can always just read your questions on the screen. iTranslate Voice also works offline.
East is East and West is West, and this has never been more obvious than when it comes to languages. English has 26 finicky letters, while Mandarin has 20,000 commonly used characters and four spoken tones. The Waygo team accepts that Asian languages are especially challenging for Western travelers, so they developed a visual app that quickly translates Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing into European languages.
The company's advertisements reference restaurant menus as Waygo's most common use, but visitors can translate retail billboards, transport instructions and tourism brochures as well. Since many travelers will opt to travel without cell service, Waygo handily works offline.