Decades ago, Star Trek introduced the idea of a “universal translator,” a small baton that let crew members converse with aliens in their native languages simply by flipping a switch. And now we’re almost there thanks to Google Translate.
This app isn’t part of the pre-installed loadout on most phones, but it’s indispensable when you travel. It’s so overflowing with features, in fact, you might not even realize everything it can do. So here are the six most awesome and useful things you can do with Google Translate on your smartphone.
Further reading: The best Android phones
Download offline languages
You won’t always have the best mobile data connection while traveling the world, so it’s a good idea to have an offline backup in Translate. The app can do basic translation without any internet access, as long as you remember to download the necessary files.
To cache languages offline, open the navigation menu and tap Offline translation. The several dozen languages supported in offline mode include the biggies like Spanish, German, and French, along with Romanian, Icelandic, Greek, and more. In offline mode, you cannot do conversational voice input, but typing and camera scanning both work normally. You can even have translations read with text-to-speech.
Translate highlighted text
Starting in Android Marshmallow, the operating system gained support for custom text selection actions. Google Translate plugs into that feature via Chrome, so it’s a snap to translate any block of text you happen to come across. Just highlight it, tap the menu button in the popup, and select Translate.
The translation of your selected text appears in a floating box at the top of the screen. The source language should be detected automatically and translated into your default language. There’s also a New translation button if you want to translate more text without leaving the popup.
The main Translate UI has all the tools you need to translate a quick word or phrase, but there’s a separate mode if you need to actually carry on a conversation. You can enter conversation mode by tapping the microphone icon at the bottom of the main text box. There’s a handy popup with instructions accessible via the hand icon at the top of the conversation screen. It explains the situation to the other person in their language.
Conversation mode goes back and forth between the two languages: You speak, the app translates, the other person speaks, and the app translates for you. By default, Translate listens for one language at a time, but there’s a button in the middle that sets the app to listen for both languages. That offers a more natural experience, provided you can avoid talking over each other.
Live visual translations
Google acquired a firm several years ago called Quest Visual to get its hands on the company’s augmented reality text translator called Word Lens. That technology is integrated in Translate, allowing you to point your phone at a sign written in another language and get a live overlay in your own language.
To open the camera translator, just tap the camera icon at the bottom of your translation text field. The language settings used here carry over from your main translation interface, so make sure to pick the right language before pressing the button. If you have the original language saved offline (see above), then you can get instant translations—the translation is just overlaid on the live image with a matching background color. If not, you have to take a picture of the text and let the app translate it.
Tap to Translate
If you get more than a few messages or emails in another language, constantly flipping back over to the Translate app can be a pain. That’s where Tap to Translate comes in handy. You enable this feature from the translate settings—and set your default languages. With Tap to Translate enabled, a translation bubble appears whenever you copy text.
The bubble will appear in the upper right corner of your screen. Simply tap it, and a floating Translate window appears with the copied text automatically detected and translated into your default language. Just like the Chrome translation feature, you can tap New translation to type in something else without leaving the popup.
You don’t need to frantically type or shout at your phone to get a quick translation for common phrases. Translate includes a custom phrasebook where you can save important translations for quick access later.
Translate keeps a running list of recent phrases under the main text box. To the right of each one is a star icon. Tap that, and it’s added to your phrasebook. The phrasebook is accessible from the navigation menu. It’s just a long list, but there’s a search feature. Tapping on any item in the phrasebook drops it into the main Translate UI.
With these tips, you should be ready to take on the world with Google Translate. Just make sure to install the app before you go!