I love challenging myself to visit new places where I'm out of my comfort zone, whether it's Kosovo or Japan, however the reality is that I'm a cheapskate when it comes to paying for data and I have dietary restrictions. I often travel in areas where people don't speak English fluently and sign language is not cutting it.
This means that you'll want a good offline translator app, preferably a translation app that is free. This is a step-by-step guide on how to use Google Translate offline for iPhones, which means that you can instantly get translations without wifi and Google will pronounce difficult words for you. Keep reading for my most used features from Google Translate, tips for using Google Translate like a pro, and how to install the best translation app you'll find.
How to Use Google Translate, the best free translation app (Step by Step)
Don't pay for translation apps when you can get this translation app for free. Google Translate is the BEST translation app for traveling abroad and it often has updates to improve its translations. I know some of this might seem super obvious, but seriously you have NO IDEA how handy this is and how many strangers/friends have not known that you can use Google Translate offline. Keep reading towards the bottom for tips that even frequent Google Translate users might not know.
Note this offline feature is not available for all languages!
Step 1: Get on wifi and download Google Translate if you don’t already have it.
You can download it for free from the iTunes store or the Android marketplace.
Most important (unless you’re fine with burning through data): The langauge file can be fairly large AND you need to have space on your phone, so you need to be on wifi...and you might need to delete Bubble Witch Saga. (Sorry.)
Step 2: What is your primary language? What languages will you need for your trip?
Look up what language is spoken on the streets where you're traveling abroad and/or what language you’ll find signs in.
Find your native language and press the little arrow next to it to download your language.
Now, select the language(s) that you’ll need while you’ll be traveling. Although one language might be listed as one of the official languages (e.g. Serbian in Kosovo), I recommend looking up which languages are most spoken in that country [Albanian in Kosovo was more helpful!].
If you only tap the name of the language, it will only work ONLINE. To have it downloaded for offline use, press the little down arrow to download that language. It will ask you confirm that you want to download it, press download.
Step 3 (optional, but recommended):
Download the keyboard for the other language you’ll need, so if a native speaker wants to start typing in a phrase to be translated into your language...or you just want to translate the menu, but lack the right alphabet, you need to do this.
I use an free keyboard app called SwiftKey that I find quite a bit better/smarter than the default keyboards that come with iPhones. (If you're on Android, I recommend Swype) It allows you to not need to switch keyboards; you can just type in the language that you need and it will auto-suggest words as you type. It’s very useful if you’re unsure on how to spell things in a foreign language.
How to add another keyboard in another language without downloading other apps:
iPhone: You can add another keyboard without downloading another app by following these steps:
Settings -> General -> Keyboard -> Add New Keyboard -> Language(s) You'll Need
Android: Settings -> Search for Language and input -> Swype -> Hit the Grey Icon -> Languages -> Download languages -> Language(s) You'll Need
OR [if Samsung] Settings -> Search for Language and input -> Samsung Keyboard -> Hit the Grey Icon -> Select input languages -> Select Language name in language [Nederlands for Dutch]
Tips for Google Translate and Most helpful features of Google Translate
Instant translation offline
For all those times that you’re like.... WHAT IS THE WORD FOR BATHROOM or you’re just puzzled what is inside your food while reading a menu at a local restaurant where a English menu is not available. Just type it in using either language. If you’re into wandering off the beaten path areas and/or visiting restaurants that tourists don't often visit, this app is essential for not playing menu roulette. I have dietary restrictions, which makes this very important.
Offline pronunciation of all phrases that you look up
Just type your phrase in and then press the speaker emoji for pronunciation
This is super helpful if you’re terrible at pronouncing languages and/or you’re dealing with a language that seems impossible. I’m really sorry to all the Hungarians reading this, but Hungarian is the hardest European language that I’ve dealt with so far.
My attempts at ask for skim/soy milk in Hungary in Hungarian went so badly that five different people tried to help me--and just left before they finally read my phone screen with the word. The clerk at this shop was so relieved to hand me the milk after she finally understood what I wanted.
Useful tip: if you turn your screen sideways (enable screen rotation), it makes the phrase really big, so you can just show it to native speakers if you're still not feeling comfortable pronouncing it.
Translations to/from both languages
Just start typing and check which direction you have it in. (I say this because I've definitely forgotten that the setting was set for English -> X rather than X -> English)
When I’ve dealt with total non-English speakers while traveling and I’ve also not known their language, this has been a lifesaver. When we were in Kosovo, we dealt with a taxi driver who spoke Turkish and Albanian, but not English. We managed to have a conversation by hand-typing responses into Google Translate and passing the phone back and forth. Turns out, he was deeply confused why we were asking to go to a remote mountain village 40 minutes away as tourists don’t really go up there and it was quite a distance away. (It was worth it 100%)
Tip: I often will just hand my phone over to a native speaker to type in their language prior to them handing it back to me to read it in English before I write in English--and hand it back to them. It works in situations where you don't have another choice.
It’s not perfect and not available for all languages, but it was a HUGE relief when I was in Japan looking at written menus only in Japanese and I had no idea what anything was. It’s kind of crazy seeing the words appear before your eyes in real time. It’s a life-saver for non-Latin alphabets.
Is the future here? I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie just because I could hold my phone up and instantly read signs in another language. I did this when I was standing on a crowded street on Tokyo (with all the signs) and as I turned, I could understand the signs. (THE FUTURE IS HERE)
Pro tip: Don’t leave on instant translate as it can be jerky and it’s hard to read it if you keep moving your phone around like a klutz. I recommend taking a photo OF the text you’re trying to translate, then you can translate everything word by word by dragging your finger across the text that you want to translate line by line. You can also upload a photo from your phone if it has text!
Whether it’s apologizing for not understanding the language, learning how to say “THERE’S AN EARTHQUAKE” to save the city (no joke: this was in a Hungarian guide that I read), asking for the women's/men's bathroom, checking which food ingredients are in something, or finding out how to get back to your hotel/airbnb/hostel, it’s super helpful to save phrases that you will use over and over.
My go-to phrases that I save usually include:
Avoid these Google Translate Features until further improved
Character writer [pen icon: ? ] and Recorder [Looks like a microphone/recording icon]. I have found that these features don’t work so well and they often result in spending way more time correcting the text/trying to figure out where you went wrong than it would take for a native speaker to just WRITE it for you.
For the character writer, you can hand draw a character in another language, however I found it's very hard to do as a non-native speaker.
In theory, the recorder would allow you to speak in your language before it translates your message to the other language--and then it listens for the other person prior to translating it to your language. I’ve found it isn’t that accurate and more frustrating than useful.
Will Google Translate work offline for non-Roman alphabets?
Yes! I've used Google Translate all over the world. I recommend downloading the keyboard for non-Roman character languages, otherwise you as well as native speakers will have difficulty typing words using your keyboard. When I was in Japan, I often took pictures using the instant photos translation tool as I had difficulty navigating the right keys on the Japanese keyboard.
Similarly, it makes it possible that you can have a native speaker type their response to a question in Google Translate using a keyboard that they're comfortable typing in. We had to do this in Kosovo and it was a lifesaver!
Follow the keyboard download instructions at the top.
When should you download it?
I strongly recommend doing this BEFORE you head off on your own without wifi whether it’s before you leave for your trip, however I sometimes do this after I get to my hotel. I recommend doing it ASAP as you never know when you’ll need to ask for directions or just trying find the exit sign...so you can finally get out of the airport.
Did you know that you could use Google Translate offline? If not, how did you typically deal with travel in places where you don't speak the language?
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Karen and Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Now in Paris with moving back to the Netherlands this month.
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