LANGUAGE TRANSLATION APPS………. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I have a very common regret: I only speak English.

But these days, with so many translation apps and software available, is this still a challenge for travelers in non-English speaking countries?

I’m planning to spend a month in Paris in April, and I’ve been emailing with a woman there whose apartment I will rent. She’s the friend of a friend of mine, Nadine, who is Moroccan and speaks French fluently. The woman in Paris doesn’t speak English.

It’s a miracle — or so it seems to me — that she and I have exchanged multiple emails, despite not speaking one another’s language. I use Google Translate online.

When I chose to visit Colombia, I already knew there were few English speakers here. According to Frommer’s travel guide, roughly 93% of Colombians speak only Spanish.

So I came prepared: I downloaded translation apps to my phone. iTranslate allows me to speak into it and the app translates the words into Spanish and then speaks them aloud. How cool is that?

What if the person I’m trying to communicate with doesn’t understand the computerized voice? I shake my phone — once, twice — and it repeats the phrase.

I arrived yesterday to an apartment I’ve rented for three weeks. It’s on the 22nd floor of a high-rise in the Poblado neighborhood.

This is a panoramic view of Medellin from the balcony:


That chair you see on the left is where I’ve been sitting as I write this post.

The woman who met me at the apartment to give me the keys didn’t speak English.  I whipped out my phone to connect to iTranslate. But there’s no AT&T service in Colombia, so the app blinked “no cell reception detected.”

But I remembered that the apartment has Wi-Fi, so she and I played “Wi-Fi Charades” till she understood what I was asking for. She gave me the password numbers and I punched them in.

I opened iTranslate, pressed the button for English and spoke into it, and it spoke my words in Spanish to her; then she pressed the key for Spanish and spoke into it, and the app spoke her words in English to me. It had a few glitches, but mostly it was a success.

But then I realized that the app would only work in the apartment — when I didn’t need a translator — and not when I was out discovering new things about Colombia when I did need translation.

Not good.

The second app I downloaded was Google Translate. When I put the camera of my phone on non-English text — a product label, for example, or a restaurant menu — it translates the words into English.

I tried using it in the grocery store, but it gave me the same error message as iTranslate: “no cell reception detected.”


I tried using it in the apartment to read the label of the bag of rice I’d bought at the grocery store. But the rice bag is rounded (natch) and I discovered that the app has trouble reading text on an uneven surface.

What have I learned?

When using iTranslate, speak in short sentences. Speak clearly. You need to think ahead — in terms of what you want to say — and find the most efficient way to say it. No “ums” or “uhhs” because the app thinks that’s part of what should be translated.

When using Google Translate to read labels, choose the ones on flat surfaces, like a cereal box. I haven’t tried it on a restaurant menu yet.

“Aplicaciones del idioma todavía necesitan mejorar para vivir plenamente hasta el bombo.”

That’s Spanish for:  Language apps still need improvement to fully live up to the hype.

(If this is a poor translation, blame Google!)

8 thoughts on “LANGUAGE TRANSLATION APPS………. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Bart: though we have been enjoying the much-needed rain in Mendo and Lake County, I’d gladly trade in that balcony view of yours any day! Love your posts! Keep them coming!


  2. You are such a brave man. I would not have the courage to do what you are doing. However, it sounds so exciting! Good luck, have fun and safe travels😊


    1. Hey Karen, It doesn’t feel like bravery but I’m trying to put my finger on what, exactly, it does feel like. I’m writing a post about it now, so my guess is I’ll post it tomorrow after editing it later today. I’m so pleased you’re following along.


  3. Looks like a good translation to me, Bart! 🙂

    The timing of this is so funny—I was just wondering earlier today if I couldn’t just use a translation app in order to write to my aunt in Germany. Now you have me thinking I might even be able to pull this off over the phone with her, too!

    Glad you are having fun. And oh my goodness, the view from your balcony! 🙂


  4. Thanks so much for your posts, Bart — I love them! I feel like I’ve made through customs and am talking to the natives already. Thanks for taking me along! Have a great, safe journey!


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