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The Google Translate iOS app is about to get a lot smarter

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Google Translate has always seemed a little bit like magic - perhaps a little flawed magic when it doesn't translate something properly - but it's been getting better as time goes on. Now the iOS app is about to get a very big update that will make almost as useful as Star Trek's universal translator.

First, Google Translate will now use the amazing Word Lens capability acquired in 2014 to do visual translations (see image above). By just pointing your iPhone's camera at a sign, menu or other written material, you'll get an instant translation even without a Wi-Fi or data connection. This is working for English to and from French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, and Google says it is working on expanding to more languages soon.

But the biggest change is in terms of getting spoken language translations. The updated app works like this:

Starting today, simply tap the mic to start speaking in a selected language, then tap the mic again, and the Google Translate app will automatically recognize which of the two languages are being spoken, letting you have a more fluid conversation. For the rest of the conversation, you won't need to tap the mic again-it'll be ready as you need it. Asking for directions to the Rive Gauche, ordering bacalhau in Lisbon, or chatting with your grandmother in her native Spanish just got a lot faster.

As Google notes, the updates "take us one step closer to turning your phone into a universal translator and to a world where language is no longer a barrier to discovering information or connecting with each other." Expect to see the iOS update in the next few days.

Now if we could just get inexpensive and ubiquitous data service for our phones when we're in a different country...

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