Can you come down to the Passport Desk? Nobody knows how to speak Spanish,” comes the call up to my office. I don’t know any Spanish either, so I grab my iPhone as I rush out the door. Once downstairs, I activate the Google Translate app and hold out the phone.
“Perdí mi pasaporte,” says my patron dutifully into the device. “¿Cómo puedo obtener un reemplazo?”
Oh, a lost passport! Well, that requires filling out form DS-64 along with a DS-11. I have my phone explain this to him as the pleasant female voice intones, “Rellene el formulario azul.” Another satisfied patron served, this time by the modern miracle that is the Google Translate app.
Google Translate by Text
Google Translate, developed by a team headed by research scientist Franz Josef Och, went live on the web in 2006. At first, it used software from SYSTRAN (systransoft.com), a 1960s’-era pioneer of machine translation that still powers the web-based translator site Babelfish (babelfish.com). SYSTRAN operates according to rule-based machine translation; it considers grammar and tense. In 2007, under Och, Google began to use its own statistical analysis algorithm, which compares immense swaths of online content. Chief among these documents were publications from the United Nations, which routinely translates all of its publications into six languages. Although this algorithm disregards grammatical rules, it can swiftly perform machine translation between the text of 90 languages. For help with a reference transaction in a multilingual environment, this free service can be invaluable.
Indeed, on the California Libraries Facebook page, Madeleine Ildefonso, community branch manager at the Wilshire Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, writes: “Google Translate has helped me with Spanish, Albanian, Bengali and Mongolian!” She uses the web version on a desktop computer, although she would love to try the mobile version. “We don’t own a tablet—yet! Normally, I type, they read,” she says. “But better to speak into the phone or tablet if they are unfamiliar with our alphabet.”
Google Translate by Speech
The web-based version of Google Translate is a useful tool at the reference desk, but the mobile version, on a tablet or smartphone equipped with a microphone, is even more powerful. In Northern California, library assistant Vanessa Marie Centeno admits to “using it on my desktop … and cellphone while helping someone in the stacks.”
She uses the mobile app, which came out in 2010 for Android and 2011 for iOS, to talk to her patrons in Spanish, French, and Arabic. “The Arabic was interesting because we were discussing technology.”
Centeno’s teen patrons mainly speak English and Spanish, but she says, “A few love manga and have tried to teach themselves Japanese! They listen to Japanese music, try to read their literature and watch their TV programs. I often use Google Translate with teens when discussing manga.”
In some languages, Google will not only translate speech into text, it will read the resulting translation out loud. Still, as amazing as this service is, Centno warns, “I always use Google with caution; the translations aren’t always exact.”
Google Translate by Images
In January 2015, Google debuted a new translation functionality. The year before, it purchased Quest Visual, the company that developed Word Lens, an app that can use the camera on a mobile device to translate printed text. Now, Google’s Translate app can parse and translate signs and printed text in 27 languages. Astonishingly, it can do this without an internet connection.
Casey McCoy, librarian at San Jose Public Library, notes that when the library asked patrons to describe how they use their library cards, a few of the answers were written in Chinese characters. She just pointed her camera phone at the forms. “The Google Translate app on my phone showed us what it said before displaying them.” She also uses Google Translate to create written signs or patron notes in Vietnamese and Chinese.