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A digital translator may be your best traveling companion

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During the dark ages of analog communications, traveling to a foreign country without knowing the language was sometimes a dicey endeavor. Road signs, restaurant menus, train schedules, etc. were challenges most of us met with hopefulness at best, frustration at worst. If you were lucky you may run into a local who could and wouldn't mind speaking English, but the further you went off the beaten path and out of reach of tourist area, the less likely you would find an English-speaking local. Basically, you are on your own with only your translation book, the only thing that could help ask a waiter exactly what kind of meat was in the dish you just ordered — after flipping through all the pages.

I was a traveler back in those days, and sometimes it was not fun. Sure, the English language is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, but when you end up in the wrong city, order food that you are allergic to or walk for an hour only to end up in the place you started, you realize that proper communication is essential to your happiness while on vacation.

Thankfully, modern technology has come to the rescue, mitigating the effects of our shortcomings while on a trip to a foreign country.

There are several digital translators to help you get along during your travels. I used Google Translate recently during a first-time trip to southeast Asia, and was very impressed with the results, but other applications offer the same features for the most part.

Google Translate operates in several modes — speak, snap, write or type — but I used camera "snap" mode. In camera mode, I simply point the camera on my device to an object like a road sign or grocery label, and the foreign words and characters pop up on the screen in English. While in Japan, I was able to read the labels on items in a supermarket, see exactly what type of wine was in that bottle, read the ingredients list on a jar of would-be questionable contents, and read which products were in which isle.

Grocery shopping may seem like mundane uses for this technology, but imagine not having it in the same situation. Digital translators give users a sense of confidence and independence. I would say that it also creates the possibility of exploration into areas that tourist would normally not venture to because of communication barriers.

While I say this technology really helps a wary traveller, let’s not get over-confident. Apps like Google Translate won't enable you to speak intelligently on the theory of relativity — or anything else — in a foreign language, and sometimes the translations can be a little sketchy. Performance can also vary by language. When I used Google Translate in Japan, for example, it was perfect, but it didn't work at all when I tried to use it in Thailand.

Obviously, there's still room for improvement, but are we seeing the start of something bigger in the future? Is AI translation the new norm, with humans reduced to quality controllers — as some say with many other industries?

Lane Green, author of You Are What You Speak says, “Computers have got much better at translation, voice recognition and speech synthesis, but they still don’t understand the meaning of language.”

Perhaps I'm more impressed with this technology because it's changed the way I travel, and I don't take that for granted. I’m not looking for deep conversation, I just want to know whether I’m eating chicken or turtle meat.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.

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