In the olden days, when you were on a subway in another country and couldn't read the signs due to not speaking the language, you'd approach a stranger and use gesturing to figure out where to go. That kind of "cultural exchange" may go extinct, however, thanks to Google's giving us our own Babel fish, the universal translator dreamt up in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. On Wednesday, Google announced that its Translate smartphone app is now going to support about 30 different languages.
Those with the Google Translate app on their smartphone can point their device's camera at something with a foreign language printed on it, and the app translates it instantly. Likewise, you can record a question or statement, hit translate, and a Google spokesbot emerges from your speakers.
The previous version of the app included English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. Now, the app, which no longer requires Internet connectivity to work, can translate to and from English and Bulgarian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Filipino, Finnish, Hungarian, Indonesian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, Swedish, Turkish and Ukrainian. It also works with Hindi and Thai, but only if you're starting with English. Google will be rolling out updates to its Android and iOS apps over the next few days. (Google is banned in China, so that might explain why the most widely spoken language in the world didn't make the app update, though the web version of the service does support it. "With instant visual translation, we select languages based on a number of factors - ranging from the usage and demand of the language to the difficulty of the characters. For example, Latin characters are easier for our systems to understand than Chinese," a Google spokesperson told Fusion.*)
Basically, Google is making it easier for us to not have to learn the languages spoken in the countries we visit. So far, people are using the thing mostly to translate street signs, ingredient lists, menus, instruction manuals, and dials on a washing machines, according to Google. Think about it. You're on the subway by yourself, you need to find out what the signs say quickly so you don't miss your stop. It's so much easier to point your phone at something, than muster up the energy to talk to a stranger. Same thing when you're trying to figure out if the food you want to eat will mess with your gluten allergy or paleo diet. Better to point your phone and figure it out yourself, than try to explain to the waiter the many things you can't eat.
The company says 1 in 6 people with an Internet connection use the service on a monthly basis. Already, they're translating roughly 100 billion word pairs in 90 languages daily. That's not insignificant.
So, could Google Translate ultimately have the same cultural effect as Google search and maps? Before Google, we used to have to ask people to fill in gaps in our knowledge, stopping people on the street for directions or asking friends who that guy in that one movie was. But we no longer have to remember facts and geographical coordinates. Our lives, in some ways, are becoming less social thanks to artificially intelligent tools. After all, the machines pull up information faster than us.
But abroad, we're more immune to this. The machines aren't as available, perhaps because of exorbitant roaming charges or less Internet access. Those transcultural interactions may be the last untouched frontier. But not for long.
"More than half of the content on the Internet is in English, but only around 20% of the world’s population speaks English. Today’s updates knock down a few more language barriers, helping you communicate better and get the information you need," wrote Google Translate chief Barak Turovsky, chief of Google Translate in a post on the company's blog.
To improve the app, Google has already turned to crowd-sourcing. Last year, it launched Translate Community, a platform through which millions of volunteers have now been able to correct translations. Allowing the app to work in Internet-free mode is another advance. Already 95% of Translate traffic comes from non-Americans abroad. So, it's easy to see why they'd be interested in making the app more user-friendly and relevant for people living in the developing world, where reliable Internet access can be hard to come by. It would expand Google's already extensive reach.
All this, of course, will likely feed back into Google's cash cow, search. By improving its understanding of multiple languages, Google will be better at mapping the non-English Internet. That means better results, and more $$$ for the search giant's coffers.
For it to work offline, you have to first download a small program for each language. (You didn't need to do that on the Internet-yoked version.) The pack, which is smaller than the size of a photo, contains a travel-sized version of the technology that powers other Google services, like the virtual assistant on Android and image recognition on Google Photos. Google engineers have condensed it so that it can run on your phone. It's like having a mini-version of the Google Brain in your pocket.
Google isn't the only company developing these tools. Microsoft's Bing Translator app already has some of the same capabilities as the upcoming Google apps, including offline use. Baidu, often dubbed the Google of China, also has a translator app as well.
Update 6:11 pm ET: The post has been updated to clarify Google Translate's Chinese capabilities, with comment from Google.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.