Google this week released an updated version of its Google Translate app, with two major new features. The first lets you point your phone camera at a sign or piece of text and see a translation of it in real-time. The second instantly translates speech into different languages. All you have to do is press the microphone icon on the app's interface, select the two languages you want to bridge, and speak into the microphone on your device. The app will automatically recognize which of the two languages you're speaking, and a female voice will repeat it to you in the other language.
As an American who's been living in Paris for seven years, my life is basically one big language barrier. I've chipped away at it over the years, thanks to friends and extremely patient girlfriends, to the point where I'm now close to fluent. But I still sympathize with the American tourists I see trying to make sense of a menu or ask for directions, because it reminds me of that empty pit of fear I felt when I first arrived here and realized I could barely carry a conversation with a three-year-old, let alone the sullen, Vogue-smoking women with whom I had intense, 48-hour relationships in the Godard movie of my mind.
Lost in translation?
I'm not sure if the new Google Translate app would've made much of a difference in my quest for French fluency or fraught flings, but it definitely would've made everyday life easier. The app's speech recognition is fast and mostly accurate, and the French it spits back is understandable, for the most part. It also helps to hear that lilting French cadence which was always so hard for me to nail down. I found the camera feature to be surprisingly effective for signs, but it became a bit jumbled when you point your phone at a chunk of text. It also wasn't as accurate with longer translations. A semi-poetic block of text outside my local bakery was translated accurately for the most part, but the app missed some words — "dans" remained in French, and "ce fournil" should be "this bakery," not "this provides."
The app's camera feature translated most of the words correctly, but there were some oversights.
There are some glitches with the speech feature, too. If you want to say "I have some weed" in French, Google will say "Je ai quelques mauvaises herbes." If you say that, people will laugh, because "Je ai" should be "J'ai," and that's not the kind of weed you're talking about. Similarly, "Can we get high?" becomes "Pouvons-nous prendre de la hauteur?" which is something only French pilots would say.
Don't ever say this.
There are some other quirks, as well. The app apparently recognizes biblical context, automatically capitalizing "He gave unto us His only begotten Son," but I was dismayed to see that the word "fuck" is blocked by default. If you say, for example, "Shall we fuck?", as one does, Google responds with "Allons-nous f asterisk asterisk asterisk?" I later realized this can be avoided by changing a setting that automatically blocks offensive language, which is highly recommended if you want to have fun. It also gets weird if you go in the other direction, especially if you want to translate French slang. "T'as chopé des meufs?" should mean "Did you hook up with any girls?" To Google, it means "You got busted for chicks?"
Don't say this either.
Ultimately, though, I'm probably not the target audience for this app. I may use it when I get stuck on a word, or want to get a point across, but it would pay the biggest dividends for French novices — tourists who just want to find the Louvre, or that one bridge with all the locks on it. Which is great! Just don't expect it to make you sound French.