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Just how good is Google Word Lens at deciphering Japanese?

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Spending a day with Google Translate in Japan

Google updated its Translate app this week with Japanese-to-English functionality. Through its Word Lens technology, English-speaking users can now translate Japanese words just by pointing their phone’s camera in their direction, and watching as they change in real time. Impressively, this process can also be done offline once you have downloaded a small file, allowing visiting tourists to use their phones as immediate pocket dictionaries without the need for a Wi-Fi connection.

Tourists, and locals who still need the help — like me. I’ve lived in the country for the last three and a half years, and while I can order a drink in a restaurant and catch trains on time, I’m often still stumped by the reams of kanji that populate official documentation, gadget manuals, and local websites. As a vegetarian, lists of ingredients are also a problem — particularly in a country that regularly places chicken powder or fish extract in otherwise veggie-friendly foods. I’d previously tried to learn hundreds of animal-specific kanji on the off-chance that I’d spot one while scanning a product’s box, but the updated Word Lens tech could make my life a lot easier.

And early attempts showed that yes, it could. When I pointed the camera at a pack of margarine (one I knew didn’t contain any dairy products), Google Translate nailed almost every ingredient, even managing to specify that the lecithin it used came from soy rather than animal sources. It had more trouble with a can of tomatoes, but much of that seemed to do with the shape of the label: the curvature meant the words kept jittering back and forth, losing and gaining meaning before I could really process them.

This jittering is a regular problem, but my experience showed that Word Lens also has trouble with non-standard font widths. That’s not usually a problem in the Latin alphabet, but Japanese only needs to use one or two kanji to impart meaning, and often spaces these out on signs, posters, and ads. Google Translate could easily understand text for “capacity” and “load” on my building’s elevator, but missed the simple “no smoking” warning underneath because the kanji were a few inches apart. Similarly, it totally whiffed on the warning not to put fingers near the door mechanism, reading the advice as a “Testuya kiss note.”

But give it time and the app is often accurate when it comes to signs, be they on restaurants or roads, giving immediate and accurate translations even while my phone was in airplane mode. A “stop” sign was identified as such almost immediately, and it even worked out that bikes were excluded from the order. The translations it does spit out are not always the most natural, but they do at least impart some meaning. “Cleaning in the feet please note!” makes enough sense when coupled with a picture of a slipping figure that you would be aware of a wet floor, for example.

It also made a valiant attempt to decipher a political candidate’s placard placed on the side of a house, correctly identifying his target as the House of Representatives, and boiling down his campaign promises succinctly. The translation might not be too useful for tourists who won’t be voting in Japanese elections, but without understanding the country’s predilection for political posters, you might be wondering why every street was plastered with the smiling faces of various 60-year-old men.

It was much less impressive, however, with complex bills, contracts, and tax documents. Faced with full sentences, the app decided the back of my internet bill was indecipherable and threw out random words. One of these was “pain,” which I imagined it felt being faced with full Japanese phrases, but my favorite was “Tsukuba in the ox!” — a weird mangling of a five-kanji string that can be read as “currently accepting applications!”

But most visitors to Japan likely won’t have to contend with income tax documentation, gas bills, or national insurance contributions. They’ll want to know how to find the train station, which floor the store is on, or what that item on the menu is. It’s not always accurate, but for these purposes, I’d definitely pack the updated Google Translate before a visit to Japan.