TransLens iPhone app gets lost in translation

Jan 10, 2011
Tech

My passport has a fair number of stamps in it, so I was really excited to take the new TransLens iPhone app ($1.99) for spin. TransLens, which is only compatible with iPhones 3GS and 4, aims to turn your phone into a live translator using its camera lens as an eye. TransLens offers support for […]

My passport has a fair number of stamps in it, so I was really excited to take the new TransLens iPhone app ($1.99) for spin. TransLens, which is only compatible with iPhones 3GS and 4, aims to turn your phone into a live translator using its camera lens as an eye.

TransLens offers support for reading 16 languages—such as Dutch, English, French, Italian and Russian— and will translate to 15 of the same languages. (Strangely, the app claims to translate both Catalan and Spanish, but doesn’t offer translation to Spanish, just Catalan.) Via the phone’s camera, TransLens uses the live video feed to reads whatever you’re aiming the camera at and gives you an instant translation, which means taking an actual photo isn’t necessary. You can also opt to pause the live feed and scan a still image, or type in a word or phrase of your own for translation.

Sadly, I found that TransLens failed many of my trials. The app was able to properly read and translate most English I threw at it, but the camera is extremely finicky about angle, often turning words into a series of random lines and characters (can’t really translate that). A boundary box is provided on screen for you to fit your words in, and if anything extra (such as letters or punctuation) gets in the shot, the app won’t translate properly. The same problems occur if the box is too large for your text. The size of the box is adjustable, but I found this difficult to do while holding the phone.

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I tried TransLens’ ability by asking it to translate some French to English, but the results were mixed. I was successful at translating Samedi to Saturday off of a French art print (the app struggles with non-standard typefaces); however, I had to hold the iPhone perfectly vertical and be extremely close to the item, which is not always possible. Any tilt to the phone or an inch farther back, and the words couldn’t be read — which meant the results were gibberish. When the app did work, the translation was quick and usually accurate.

Overall, I found I had the best luck with typing in my own phrases—successful every time, but that’s not really the point of this app. TransLens’ results are simply too inconsistent to rely on, especially when Google’s translator is a Safari tap away.

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