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Do Electronic Translators Work?

As modern travelers, we love visiting exotic locations, but we don’t always know the language. Now, we have apps that help us translate words and sentences in real time, but they just aren’t fast enough.

Luckily, in the past few years, experts have been working on making the perfect portable translator device, and there are quite a few of them on the market. But do they work?

What Is a Language Translator Device?

A language translator device is, to put it bluntly, a godsend for tourists and world travelers who don’t have time to learn a new language. It’s literally a pocket translator that we click on, then speak into, and wait for a second or two while it converts our words to the target language.

Sometimes, it’s a two-way translator device, like Muama Enence or Layopo Language Translator Device . Other times, the translator will work only one way, like ili. But it’s always the same concept. It has to be a hand-held translator, and it has to work in everyday situations.

Were These Translators Tested?

Interestingly enough, in January 2018, the South China Morning Post released an article where they talked about testing two popular devices. They tested the Japanese translator device we mentioned earlier called ili, as well as the Hong Kong-made Transay.

SCMP’s testers went to the city of Shenzhen in order to test their devices. They purposefully chose this city not only because of its size and population but also because it’s home to a large population of non-natives. In other words, it’s the perfect city where a language translator device would be needed.

The testers also decided to focus on everyday activities. Translators were used during shopping, catching a cab, ordering food in a restaurant, looking for famous landmarks, and other things that a tourist would do.

What Were the Results?

Both ili and Transay seemed to display all of the benefits and the flaws of portable translators equally. For example, ili doesn’t need an Internet connection. The device has everything it needs pre-downloaded into it. However, it is a one-way translator, which makes it inferior to Transay, which can translate both ways.

Both of these translators have a similar shape and size. They are small and sleek-looking, and their designs make them look like MP3 players. That’s interesting in and of itself since MP3 players are no longer common, making ili and Transay almost ‘retro’ among the latest, touchscreen gadgets.

In addition, they are small enough to fit in our shirt pockets. For a traveler who has a lot of luggage or even the one who likes to travel light, that’s an amazing feature. We won’t even feel the translator in our pocket while walking around town and taking in the sights.

However, performance is key. How did these real-time translation devices do? Well, the opinion of the SCMP crew was mixed-to-positive. They did translate most of the sentences well enough, but the accuracy was far from 100%. For example, one device didn’t recognize the name of a large Chinese province. Also, they would sometimes translate the name of a restaurant wrong or even fail to arrange words in a sentence properly.

The Testers’ Conclusion

SCMP testers reached a simple verdict that seemed to describe every portable translator in early 2018. According to them, these devices were great for everyday tasks like shopping and ordering food. Short sentences and commands  were easy to translate, and there weren’t too many problems.

However, the technology at the time was still rough around the edges. The text made it clear that translation devices needed refining. After all, even the best translator (app or device) can’t really match the creative nature of a living human language.

Luckily, it’s been a year and a half since that article was published. Right now, we have a plethora of amazing devices out there. Some of the bugs were fixed, but the question still remains: do electronic translators work or not?

To Buy or Not To Buy…

Websites like Sounds and Colors have already discussed how useful portable translators are. Most people agree that the best solution is to learn the language of the country we’re visiting.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have an alternative in case we have no time to acquire a whole new language. So, before we definitely answer whether portable translators today work or not, we should focus on where and how we need to use them.

First off, our electronic translator needs to convert short, everyday phrases. That’s important if we want to shop for food, drinks, clothing, or souvenirs. It’s also a good way to know how much we’re paying for something. Furthermore, it will help us if we get lost or if we need to find a specific landmark.

Next, we will need a two-way translator. After all, we are having a conversation with another person, and it would help us both if they can use the translator at the same time.

Our translator should also be able to work without an Internet connection, and it should offer as many languages as possible. If we’re in a city like Shenzhen, we will run into people who might not speak Chinese OR English. They might speak Arabic, Afrikaans, or Greek, for instance. A versatile translation device is always a plus there.

Moving on, the translator should be light, durable, and have a long battery life. Most of these points are self-explanatory. Finally, it should work well in a noisy environment, like a busy street or a market.

Answering the ‘Do They Work?’ Question

In short, yes, they do if we base our assessment on the features we listed above, of course.

Human language is, in a way, a living being that’s constantly evolving. It goes well beyond words and phrases and includes such subtleties as motion, facial features, intonation, stress, etc.

None of these can be picked up by a machine, no matter how sophisticated it might be. And we can’t forget about intentional language ‘corruption’ such as slang (or even modern meme culture; yes, every country has its own culture of memes).

However, when it comes to very basic language structures, an electronic translator will definitely work for us. For that reason alone, we highly encourage our readers to buy one the next time they decide to travel abroad.


Muama Enence, for example, is the best one on the market today, and it covers every feature we have mentioned. But it’s far from being the only option out there. Modern translators are constantly getting better, and they’re not going away anytime soon. And since they are devices that literally fit in our pocket, why not have one on standby?

September 6, 2020


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