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Lost in translation, or how I got around Tokyo with Google Translate

How well does Google Translate really work?

The translation service supports more than 70 languages on Android and iOS (and 80 languages on the desktop version). It gives users voice, text and picture input options.

I was hoping to pick up some basic phrases on my recent trip to Tokyo using the free app on my iPhone. Pressing questions like, “Where is the nearest cat cafe?” and “Where is the best place in the city to get nail art?”

Disclaimer: there have been complaints about Google Translate’s inability to properly decipher certain Asian languages, which come with a buffet line of regional dialects (versus Latin-based tongues). But this did not deter my Asian conversational quest. I chronicled some of the results in the video above.

In my experience, I found that using Google Translate with voice input helps start the conversation but drops the ball before the end zone. Like, way before the end zone.

One of my main issues with the app is the short time span allotted for a speaker to talk. A bell-like tone signals that the app is done listening, regardless of whether someone is mid-sentence – Google Translate’s equivalent of “talk to the hand.”

This quickly became the bane of my interactions with Tokyo residents. I’d find myself having to awkwardly reload the “listen” button and signal perplexed speakers to continue, ruining the natural flow of what I thought would more closely resemble a real-time chat.

Moreover, I found myself piecing their answers together, especially when the app translated their words into gibberish, which it did a lot.

Based on the confused looks I got when showing people the English-to-Japanese translations, I’m not sure those were on point either. I had to repeat my questions multiple times for the app and had to simplify my query with each attempt, which dragged out conversations in an awkward way even more. 

“You are using me kimono I think Nishika. Kimono Nishihata large four.” Say what?

These were the responses from a shopkeeper in the Asakusa district, who spoke only Japanese, when I asked him about the items he sold in his traditional kimono store. Or at least that’s what Google Translate told me he said.    

What the patient shopkeeper was trying to say was that he designed the pieces he sold in the store – something I wouldn’t have been able to pick up from what Google Translate relayed to me, if some English speaker hadn’t kindly stepped in.

I found myself increasingly relying on dual speakers to give me what the app had promised but couldn’t fully deliver.

I did find that Google Translate worked best when I fed the app minimal command words: Coffee. Small. No sugar. But when it came to having a somewhat deeper conversation with multiple questions or longer answers, I relied on other people or globally known facial cues and body language to figure it out.

Perhaps Google didn’t mean for the translation service to serve as a tourist’s primary means of communication in a foreign country, but I figured it was worth a shot. Google Translate does warn that not all translations are spot on, as demonstrated by this chuckle-worthy viral video.

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