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Language barriers remain one of travel’s biggest challenges. While being able to talk to the locals can greatly enhance your trip, the reverse is unfortunately also true. Mishaps and misunderstandings are all too common when you have no idea what’s going on.
Fortunately, translation apps have grown increasingly sophisticated over the years, and can be extremely useful when you’re overseas. Some aim to cover as much of the world as possible, while others specialize in specific regions, languages, or requirements.
While many require an Internet connection to function, others can work partially or entirely offline. That’s particularly useful if you don’t have a local SIM card or other affordable way of staying connected overseas.
These are eight of the top translation apps for iOS and Android users, wherever your travels may take you.
Google Translate is an indispensable tool for any traveler. With 100 languages on the mobile app, nearly 40 of which include translation of text from a photo, it’s the most comprehensive option available.
You can download offline support for many (although not all) languages, and the volunteer community continually improves the translated results. “Conversation” mode seems tailor-made for travelers, translating speech in both directions as two people speak to each other in different languages.
Conveniently integrating with other apps like Google Hangouts, you may wonder why we even need other translation apps if Google Translate is so good. The reality is that while it’s a great tool, it’s not perfect for every situation.
That “Conversation” feature is a bit clunky to use in the real world, for instance, and there are no phrasebooks, educational resources, or other tools to help learn the language yourself. Google Translate is definitely the king, but there’s space for other translation apps as well.
iOS and Android; free
Microsoft Translator is arguably the biggest alternative to Google’s version, with many of the same features. The app provides general translation functionality (via text, audio, or image), and you can pin translations for later reference.
The translation aspect itself is probably inferior to Google Translate, but its the Phrasebook tool that makes Microsoft Translator stand out. Just like in the olden days of travel, when people carried around quaint phrasebooks with tattered pages, there’s a large list of useful phases within the app.
Some are very general, such as “Thank you,” “How much?” or “Is there an ATM?” — the kind of basic, essential phrases we’re all likely to need on the road. That’s just the beginning, though, with many other options across several categories including dining, technology, health, emergency, and travel.
The phrasebook feature alone makes Microsoft Translator a handy tool, especially if you pair it with Google Translate as well.
iOS and Android; free
Speak & Translate
Looking for an app that specifically focuses on translating conversations? Speak & Translate will be right up your alley, even if it does come with a relatively high price tag. It’s sleek and very easy to use, in contrast to the clunky Conversation portion of Google Translate.
The app covers 117 languages for text translation, 54 languages for voice translations, and even integrates with Apple Watch. Translations are generated from a range of sources, including Google Translate, Microsoft Translate, and others.
You can access your translation history (a handy tool for travelers!), and set various options such as how quickly the translated text is read out, or whether you’d prefer a male or female voice.
Speak & Translate isn’t necessarily a tool for every traveler, but for those who want a better, more seamless conversational experience, it may well be worth the price tag.
If you want a free alternative to Speak & Translate (above), check out SayHi. Like many other conversation apps, it focuses on providing a user-friendly experience for conversations between people who don’t speak the same language.
The app has strong support for regional language variations. Words can be translated into the particular dialect of Arabic spoken in Egypt or Bahrain, for example, or the Mandarin spoken in mainland China or Taiwan. Spanish options are particularly robust, with eighteen areas covered in total.
Again, you can choose if the voice is male or female, and select the speed of the voice. For language learners, there’s the companion “SayHi Learn” app, which includes educational tools for studying Spanish, French, Danish, and German.
The only real downside of SayHi is a lack of offline access, but otherwise, it’s a fantastic free tool.
iOS and Android; free
There are tons of Spanish translation apps out there, but SpanishDict Translator is a particularly good option. Type in a word or phrase, and the app can translate it, look up its definition, or if it’s a verb, conjugate it for you.
The app also works as a general education resource, including an extensive grammar guide covering a range of topics (like the differences between ser and estar, for example.) There’s also a phrasebook that’s divided into multiple categories, along with helpful guides for topics like “how to talk about measurements in Spanish.”
The app is essentially a Swiss-army knife for travelers in Spanish-speaking countries. It’s supported by advertisements, but if you want to remove them, upgrading to a Premium account only costs a few dollars a year.
iOS and Android; free or $2.99/year for Premium
Arabic Dictionary and Translator
If you’re traveling to Arabic-speaking countries, it’s worth downloading Arabic Dictionary and Translator. Created by EVOLLY, the different parts of the app work in tandem to provide a range of language tools, including translation between English and Arabic.
The translation side of things brings together sources including Google, Microsoft, Yandex Translate, Baidu Translate, and others, and lets users review different suggestions for how to say a given phrase.
Arabic Dictionary, meanwhile, lets you look up particular words and save them for quick access, create flashcards, and make notes related to your study of the language. There are tons of glossaries and supplemental dictionaries to choose from, including those for specialized topics.
The app also gives details of synonyms, antonyms, and other related words. There are in-app ads, which can be removed if you go Premium.
iOS and Android; free or $8.99 for Premium
Pleco is a language app for both Mandarin and Cantonese. While not technically a translation tool (it’s more like a dictionary), Pleco it’s still a compelling language tool for travelers.
You can use the optical camera recognition (OCR) feature to look up signs, menus, and other text via your phone camera, or write characters out on the screen. Helpfully, the app is tolerant of stroke mistakes — think of it as autocorrect for Chinese characters.
The dictionary pulls information from Oxford, Longman, and other publishers, and provides definitions and sample sentences with audio to check pronunciation. You can also convert words from the dictionary into flashcards, and install pre-made flashcards to improve your language skills.
For pronunciation help, the app features audio recordings of 34,000 Chinese words spoken by two different native Mandarin speakers. A speech synthesizer is available for Cantonese. You can purchase various add-ons or packages, as well, which add things like special dictionaries, document readers, and stroke order diagrams.
iOS and Android; free or add-ons/bundles that range in price $9.99 to $59.99
Papago is a useful tool for Asian languages, especially Korean, letting you translate words and phrases from text, audio, or images. The Korean translator allows users to toggle on/off the setting for “honorifics,” an important aspect of Korean grammar.
The app is accurate enough for everything from basic conversations to translating K-pop songs, and you can even use it to translate entire web pages simply by pasting in the URL. Papago also includes both a dictionary and a phrasebook, which provides hundreds of helpful recommendations.
While Papago is especially popular for translating Korean, it also supports Chinese (simplified and traditional), Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Russian, German, and Italian.
iOS and Android; free