Google Translate can overlay the translation of signs and text right on your screen. Google

Welcome to Travel App Tuesday, a new feature on the IBTraveler blog.

We’ve come a long way since the days of lugging hefty travel guides on vacation. Now, there’s an app for virtually every travel need -- and a dizzying amount of new ones hit the market practically every day. Travel App Tuesday will attempt to cut through some of that noise and highlight the travel apps that are worth the space on your phone or tablet -- and the ones that simply add to the digital clutter. To kick things off, I thought I’d check out an offering from that most ubiquitous digital presence in our lives: Google.

Google Translate

Available on: Android, iOS

Cost: Free

Part of the charm of traveling abroad is making your way through a foreign country and adopting the universal language of smiles, gestures and frantic pantomiming. Carrying along a book of frequently used phrases used to be a common, if inefficient, supplement -- but it would do when you needed to pull up “Where is the bathroom?” in a pinch.

Still, a translation book doesn’t account for mangled pronunciations and is frankly unwieldy in most situations, especially in a digital world. The Google Translate app, which has been around for a while, has been an excellent substitute: Type in a word or phrase and the app spits out its translation in some 90 other languages. You can even play the translation out loud in many of the featured languages and get translations of pictures you take of signs or other text.

But earlier this year, Google added some features that make Google Translate truly indispensable for international travelers. Now, the app lets you instantly translate text using your phone’s camera. You simply point it at a sign or text and the app overlays the translation on your screen -- even when you don’t have an Internet or data connection. So far, the feature is available for translations back and forth between English and Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Russian. Google says it’s working on expanding to other languages. See how it works in the following GIF:


Google Translate’s other new feature makes conversation between different-language speakers practically seamless. It can translate a conversation as it happens. You enter “conversation mode” by tapping the mic in the app to start speaking a selected language. Tap the mic a second time, and the app recognizes which of two languages are being spoken and provides real-time translations. See a demonstration in the video below:

Verdict: Google Translate is a must for globe-trotters who want to communicate more easily while abroad. There is a bit of a time lag in conversation mode, and we wish the handy camera feature was available in more languages, but on balance, it's worth installing on your phone or tablet. Especially because it doesn't cost a thing. And the language of free is pretty universal.