A Guide to Translation Devices for Travelers

by BootsnAll

Sick of dragging lots of dictionaries around the world? Tired of memorizing the “common phrases” section of your guidebook but then find you don’t know how to actually say the words you so painstakingly tried to learn? Frustrated with learning how to ask a question or two only to realize you can’t understand the answers you get? Most travelers can identify with these situations, so it’s easy to see how an electronic translation device could come in handy while you’re on the road. The invention has come a long way in its 50-year lifespan and although they’re far from perfect, electronic translation devices can help you buy a train ticket, make a hotel reservation or simply say “sorry” to your seat-mate after the chicken bus takes that turn a little too quickly.

What are translation devices? What do they do?

Translation devices do just what the name says – it’s computer-assisted translation from one language to another so that you don’t have to learn even the basics in every language you’ll encounter around the world. The way these devices work varies, but generally speaking the user types in whatever word or phrase they want to translate into the machine or the program and then choose the language they want that word or phrase changed into. Some of these devices will then “pronounce” the word for you, while others just show you what the word is and leave you to figure out the pronunciation.

Keep in mind, however, that even the best translation devices aren’t perfect – they’re computers, not people, so instead of perfect translations these are usually going to offer you (at best) the gist of a sentence or phrase. You aren’t likely to get the exact meanings that are based on specific situations or on slang, syntax, and idioms.

Translation Device Options

Your options for translation devices is basically between devices that are dedicated translators or translation software which you can run on your laptop or PDA. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but backpackers for whom space is at a premium tend to favor small devices that multi-task – in other words, if something like a PDA or smart phone that you’re already carrying can also function as a translator, that’s going to be more convenient than carrying around yet one more thing.

There’s one more distinction among translation devices – those that “talk” and those that don’t. Talking translators give you an audible pronunciation sample of the word you’ve just looked up, while other translators still make you fend for yourself in the pronunciation department.

Should you bring a translation device on your trip?

While this is a highly personal decision that each traveler will have to make, there are pros and cons to consider.

Why You SHOULD Bring a Translation Device

  • Convenient: Stuck at a train station and you don’t know how to buy a ticket? Want to know what you are ordering off of the menu printed only in Romanian? Whip out your translator and have the answers almost immediately. An electronic translator will help you say what you want, almost anywhere you want it, without relying on your charades skills.
  • Compact: Sure, phrase books can do basically the same thing as translation devices, but if you’re doing a tour of Europe and you need to translate seven different languages, do you want to carry around books for all of them? Also, how easy is it to search through a dictionary, trying to to find the local word for “vegetarian” while the waiter is standing at your table, impatiently tapping his foot?
  • Educational: Got a little extra time on the bus? Pull out your translator and start looking up how to say common phrases in the country you’re heading to. Or, if that isn’t entertaining enough, amuse yourself by trying to learn all the swear words.

Why You SHOULD NOT Bring a Translation Device

  • Imperfect Translations: No machine is (or is ever likely to be) better than a human translator. Translation devices can give you the general idea of a phrase or sentence – and even that can be thrown off by idiomatic expressions or slang. There is no guarantee that you’ll get an accurate translation of the sentence you’re looking for, especially if the machine or software you’re using doesn’t have a certain word in its database and picks something that’s just close. It may not be close enough.
  • Universal Language: If you’re reading this article, we’re going to assume you speak at least decent English – which means you’re well-equipped to travel many places around the world. Those of you who are sticking to larger cities and well-traveled countries will find that many people speak English – especially those who work in the tourist industry (in hotels, museums, train stations, etc.) On the other hand, if you’ll be spending some time in more remote places where English isn’t likely to be widely spoken, then you can bring a phrasebook for that language and leave it at the hotel or hostel before you head on to the next destination – or you can do your best to learn the language! Remember, those games of charades can make for some fun cultural experiences and great travel memories.
  • Builds Barriers: You’re thinking, “Wait, I don’t want to build barriers when I’m traveling, right?” You’re right, you don’t – but the truth is that if you’re carrying around a translation device, most hardcore backpackers are going to think you look like a bit of a dork. Right or wrong, that’s the facts, jack. Translation devices aren’t found on the must-have lists of most serious travelers, and you may get some weird looks from those who assume you think you’re better because you’ve got some pricey gadget that they’re getting along just fine without. What’s more, having your nose stuck in a little computer can also keep you from really seeing what’s going on around you and – perhaps – learning what a word means just by context and a little pointing.

So, Boots crew, do I take a translation device on my trip?

BoostnAll Sez: Ix-nay the translation device – in other words, no. Sure, they can be convenient, and they can be useful for people who are going to be traveling through several different language regions, but we think these benefits don’t really outweigh the significant downsides for most backpackers. And remember that not all languages can be translated through these programs – or, at least, translated easily. If you really want to bring some kind of translator, chances are you’re a tech-nut who’s already bringing a PDA or laptop with you. In that case, add a translation program and you’re good to go.

Having said that, we know that not all travelers go the same way and that some of you aren’t going to leave home without a translation device. So, with that in mind, here are a few translation devices that we’d recommend: