It’s a problem as old as the Tower of Babel: How do you communicate with others when you don’t speak their language? Anna-Marie Cartagena found herself in this situation on a recent visit to a spice market in Israel. The employee spoke no English, and Cartagena didn’t speak Hebrew. She didn’t have ready access to a phone with an internet connection.
Cartagena’s solution isn’t new, but it’s often overlooked. A sign language interpreter by profession, she decided to try communicating nonverbally. “I gestured and clucked like a chicken,” she says — a request for spices used to prepare chicken. Then she oinked for pork. “Then he made spice blends for all the items and drew a picture of a chicken, fish, pig, carrot and a cow on each bag,” she recalls.
“Communication needs to happen — and it will.”
Fortunately, there are easier ways to get your message across. There are a variety of translation apps and services that can help travelers overcome language barriers.
Google Translate, the most widely used translation app, automatically translates phrases into dozens of languages. “Google Translate can be a good resource if you don’t speak the destination language, and you need to get urgent information across, like ordering at a restaurant,” says Carolina Sánchez-Hervás, founder of CSH Translation, a translation-services provider. But she recommends using it with caution: The app may not pick up on nuances such as gender agreement, jokes or metaphors. Google also offers an interpreter mode that allows you to speak into your device to get an almost real-time translation. But for most users, it’s dependent on a fast internet connection, so if you’re offline, it might not work.
Carla Bevins, who teaches business communication at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, also likes Microsoft Translator, a free app that offers translation into more than 100 languages and allows up to 100 participants. The app iTranslate can also offer more flexibility. “It supports gesture-based controls and can translate Chinese characters,” she says. But Bevins warns against overreliance on translation apps. There’s no substitute for learning a few key phrases and communicating face to face. “Be willing to try speaking with others,” she advises. “As you practice speaking, you’ll get better at it and make some great memories.”
Several apps can connect you to a live interpreter. Alan Campbell, a former Foreign Service worker who teaches Spanish translation, likes Jeenie (iOS or Android), an app that charges one dollar a minute for real-time interpretations. “It is a great app with a respectable mission to support language accessibility and equity in other contexts besides travel,” he says. The app works through your camera, so your interpreter can also see the body-language cues of the person you’re talking to, allowing for more accuracy. Other apps, such as Stepes, charge by the word but may offer more language options. Day Translations can translate, help with pronunciation and, if necessary, connect you to an interpreter.
For situations when an accurate translation is a must — describing a medical condition or food allergy, for example — some travelers will buy cards or printouts to take on vacation. Companies such as Equal Eats sell cards that describe conditions including celiac disease and nut allergies ($7.99 for an instant download or $16.99 for a plastic card) in different languages. Translation software is “not accurate enough to convey life-threatening allergy information abroad,” says Kyle Dine, CEO of Equal Eats. The company uses professional translators, proofreaders and native speakers to ensure the most accurate translation. The information is also available as an app.
If you have a travel insurance policy, you may be able to take advantage of translation services. For example, Allianz Travel Insurance’s assistance hotline offers real-time services for its customers in several major languages, including French, German and Italian. “Travelers who call in advance can request our help with arrangements in their destination’s language — anything from making hotel, restaurant or sightseeing tour reservations to obtaining important information needed throughout their travels,” says LaShanta Sullivan, manager of Allianz’s travel assistance department. If you have a Medjet membership, which offers medical evacuations, you can also use its medical translation benefits to distill and translate foreign medical reports into English.
Of course, the best way to communicate is to learn the language. Although you might not have the time to become proficient, even knowing a few words and phrases can be helpful. There are a host of apps that can help you learn another language. “Even a small effort goes a long way and is not only appreciated by the locals but also allows you a deeper connection with the country, away from your smartphone,” says Franziska Wirth, a sales manager for guidebook publisher Rough Guides.
But there’s not always time for that. On a recent visit to Turkey, I barely got past hello (“merhaba”). One evening, I found myself in a taxi with a driver who spoke no English. I fumbled on my phone for Google Translate and finally typed what I wanted to say. Then I pushed the button for it to play aloud. Nothing happened. So I pushed it again. The Turkish translation rendered slowly, which happens when you push the button twice, and everyone had a good laugh.
Ultimately, methods such as Cartagena’s may still be the most effective. Kelley Price, a human resources manager from Kirkland, used it recently when she visited a town just outside Izmir, on Turkey’s Aegean coast. She stopped in a restaurant where no one spoke English, and the menus were entirely in Turkish.
“So I made chicken noises,” she says. “I grew up on a farm and can do a pretty realistic chicken. And we got chicken for dinner.”