How That Magical Universal Translator Technology Works on Our Real Travels

New York (MainStreet) — Travel keeps getting easier. From falling airfares (yes, they have actually been going down) to the freedom of self-shopping, we live in a golden age of tourism. A lot of that has to do with technology, particularly the Internet.

Over the past several years a new tool has begun to edge its way onto the scene: Translation technology, moving steadily from the realm of neat gimmickry to a valuable tool. The question is, behind the grandiose claims of wandering the streets of Venice with your own universal translator, how useful are these programs really? To try to answer that, I spoke with the president of One Hour Translation, Lior Libman, then took to the streets of Arequipa, Peru, with nothing more than an iPhone and hazy memories of fifth-grade Spanish.

Did they laugh at me in the White City? You bet. Did I learn anything worthwhile? Well…

It definitely greases the wheels.

From a consumer perspective there’s no question that translation programs save us a ton of cash and opens doors. It’s something every entrepreneur should keep an eye on.

Modern tourism is increasingly all about person-to-person business, Libman says. The Internet has virtually completely reshaped the industry, and one of the biggest changes has been allowing travelers to connect directly with small businesses and individuals. With the advent of e-commerce, small guesthouses, restaurants and tour guides can now compete easily for business with major companies and consumers. In fact, travelers are flocking to the small, local places more than ever before.

Odd as it is to think of, until recently that was impossible. Only companies with big budgets or bigger reputations could compete for international customers, and they ate the little guy’s lunch. Today the doors have been blown wide open.

Still, just getting online isn’t enough. As Libman points out, a business won’t attract customers who can’t understand what it’s selling. A study by his company discovered that the overwhelming majority of consumers will choose to shop on a website in their native language even when they can speak and read the alternatives. In fact, more than 50% will shop or book on websites only in their native language.

Our Bangkok guesthouse will still lose American customers to the Marriott, because we want to work in English.

This is where, quietly and behind the scenes, translation technology has become one of the biggest money savers in the travel industry. Porting websites and advertisements into a variety of languages lets the person-to-person business model function and local entrepreneurs get into the game. For travelers, this means access to local and generally far cheaper options they may never have discovered otherwise.

Still, that’s just behind the scenes. How well does the promise of a universal translator hold up once you pass through customs? Well…

Captain Kirk isn’t quite here. Yet.

Sadly, personal translators don’t deliver magic quite yet. Despite commercials that promise a seamless conversation, not to mention youth, good looks and magnetic sex appeal, in my experience these apps had about the same effect on my bottom line as the tried-and-true phrasebook, with marginally more convenience.

It’s also worth noting upfront that these apps can cost a lot of money.

“Data, data, data,” Sherlock Holmes once famously exclaimed, “I cannot make bricks without clay!” Well for Americans abroad, that be some expensive clay. Many translators rely on being connected to the Internet to get results, and frequent use can gobble up already-expensive overseas coverage. Take care or you might come home to a hefty bill.

These apps can also nibble you to death financially. Although often free to download, when language packs are required they generally cost around $4.99 a pop. Five bucks may be a rounding error in the scheme of an entire vacation, but this can add up over time.

Still, undaunted by the costs due to my burning commitment to you, the readers, I hit the streets to test drive my app of choice in the real world (in this case, Google Translate).

As far as features go I found text translation the most helpful, but still nothing groundbreaking. Ignore all of the commercials that show befuddled tourists aiming their phones (or God forbid, tablets) at street signs. Urban signs just aren’t that big of a challenge, and I’m not going to lug a device just in case I need to get absolutely right the difference between “Free Ice Cream” and “Beware of Tiger.”

Text translation did help me buy lunch with only a few hiccups (unless Peru actually serves a sandwich called the “Three Cheese Panic").

There’s no such thing as a fair-priced tourist menu. I’m pretty sure it’s against the Geneva Conventions or something equally global and binding. In foreign countries the easiest way to spot a restaurateur licking his chops to take you for a ride is to look for a menu with English translations. On the other hand, while local joints may offer a better meal for a better price, you do risk accidentally ordering something that disturbingly resembles a beloved childhood pet.

That’s where the app saved me some time, trouble and cash — yet in doing so, solved a problem I didn’t have. For years I’ve gotten by with a dog-eared phrasebook, and while the technology was absolutely easier (not to mention cooler) it came at the cost of carrying an $800 smartphone instead of a $12 book.

Still, I did use the text translator and it did come in handy. The real-time conversation wizardry, on the other hand? It’s awkward, clunky and profoundly unhelpful. My app found background noise confusing, so forget restaurants, streets or any store popular enough to have other shoppers. It demands an unnaturally stilted tone, and there’s simply no way for two people to have a natural conversation with a device shoved between their faces.

The translation was serviceable, but certainly not good enough to demand total silence while I spoke like someone with a head injury and waited for the phone to spit out results. And frankly, I couldn’t even come up with a money-saving use for this even under perfect conditions. (Haggling, I have always found, is much easier through the time-honored practice of just writing down competing numbers until you get to the result.)

Voice translation technology is a nifty toy. It might be the future, but it's not much more than a parlor trick in its current form. Text translation can help here and there, but keep a careful eye on whether it’s soaking an international data plan you may or may not have.

And for you entrepreneurs out there? Figure out who's visiting your city and translate everything. It can bring in business from a world of tourists ready to shop in their native tongue.

— Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website A Wandering Lawyer.

More from Personal Finance

Retirement Saving Should Take Priority Over Paying For Kids' College

Retirement Saving Should Take Priority Over Paying For Kids' College

What Are Charitable Gift Annuities and What Are the Benefits?

What Are Charitable Gift Annuities and What Are the Benefits?

7 Amazon Scams and How to Protect Yourself in 2018

7 Amazon Scams and How to Protect Yourself in 2018

Lotteries Are for Losers: Kick the Habit and Become a Millionaire

Lotteries Are for Losers: Kick the Habit and Become a Millionaire

What Is Present Value and How Is It Calculated?

What Is Present Value and How Is It Calculated?