Google Translate for iPhone Puts a Babel Fish in Your Pocket

Last Updated Feb 9, 2011 12:28 PM EST

Traveling abroad? Forget the foreign-language dictionary, the phrasebook, the interpreter -- just bring your iPhone and the amazing new Google Translate app, which instantly translates typed and spoken phrases from one language to another. (It's also available for Android.)

Specifically, the app can translate 15 different spoken languages, meaning if your cab driver speaks only, say, Hindi, you can easily communicate with him -- and vice-versa. And if you stick with typed phrases, it can translate a whopping 50 languages.

The experience of using Google Translate is nothing short of magical. Because it supports voice recognition, you just hold your iPhone to your head and say something (like "Where is the bathroom?"). In a matter of seconds, it converts your spoken phrase into spelled-out English and the chosen translation language.

If you tap the speaker icon, the app announces the phrase with a near-perfect accent. There's also a clever full-screen option that super-sizes the translated text, great for those times when it's easier to flash the screen at someone (like in a noisy restaurant).

Google Translate keeps a history of your translations so you can easily return to them. Or, tap the "star" icon to add a particular translation to a list of favorites. Thankfully, both your history and favorites can be accessed offline -- the app does require Internet access for real-time translations, arguably its only shortcoming. (It's also missing the cool Conversation Mode found in the Android version, though that's limited to English-Spanish for the moment.)

But make no mistake: Google Translate is nothing short of ingenious. Magical. Miraculous, even. It's one of those rare apps that's both incredibly useful and jaw-droppingly cool. Why Google doesn't charge for it is beyond my comprehension. Lonely Planet, you're on notice.

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.

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