English-speaking diners at this restaurant by Lake Orta in Italy will have no worries ordering food with the help of translation apps. English-speaking diners at this restaurant by Lake Orta in Italy will have no worries ordering food with the help of translation apps. English-speaking diners at this restaurant by Lake Orta in Italy will have no worries ordering food with the help of translation apps. (Photo: Pcruciatti / Shutterstock)

These apps can help eliminate language barriers

Whether you speak English or Klingon, phones turn into personal translators while traveling.

You're on your honeymoon traveling in a foreign country. You walk into a local artisan's shop and are wowed by his wondrous wares. You ask about a certain trinket, but what comes out of your mouth ends up being a mixture of broken English and bruised pride. Let's just say it's not pretty.

Fortunately, with real-time speech-translating technology, language obstacles soon may crumble away. Fans of Star Trek are familiar with the "Universal Translator" device that the crew of the USS Enterprise used to communicate with aliens. Alas, we all assumed this futuristic device was just that – something we'd see in the distant future. But it appears, with a handful of new tools that fit right in your pocket, the future has arrived.

One of the newest entrants into this market is Israel-based Lexifone, which launched with an Android app and recently added an iPhone app as well. Lexifone’s face-to-face feature is aimed at travelers and expats who require translation in places like restaurants, doctors’ offices, retail stores and bus stations.

The free service works like this: One person turns on the phone’s speaker, calls into Lexifone’s access number and chooses the language. (The technology can interpret into 16 languages, including English, Spanish, Hebrew and French.) Lexifone translates the conversation between the two people in the room. No Internet connection – or human interpreter – required.

“This removes yet another uncomfortable barrier to entry for many travelers,” Itay Sagie, Lexifone's co-founder, told From The Grapevine. “We want people to feel empowered and comforted by the fact that they can go abroad with ease and confidence.”

Lexifone also has a fee-based service, which you can use to contact friends and colleagues around the world.

“We want to close the language gap and enable communication between any two people, regardless of their language, location or type of device they are using,” Sagie said, adding that the technology benefits the corporate world as well. “We’re removing traditional roadblocks for businesses to expand, we’re allowing global commerce to occur and we’re giving people a reason to speak freely.”

Lexifone is not the only tool out there to simplify international travel. U.S.-based SayHi Translate features more than 100 languages, from Russian to Dutch to Portuguese. Users can speak into the phone or type what they want to say. The app allows people to choose male or female for a text-to-speech voice. People can also save a phrase or question they know they will need for later, such as, “Where’s the nearest bathroom?” or “Which way is the subway station?”

Waygo, another American company, can translate Chinese, Japanese and Korean menus and signage by hovering your smartphone over the text. It doesn’t need a data connection, and the app shows the pronunciation of the words to make ordering dinner easy.

Video communication powerhouse Skype, whose headquarters are in Luxembourg, offers the spin-off Skype Translator. People can simply connect to almost any Skype-enabled device to make a video or voice call with someone who speaks another language. It’s currently available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Mandarin. However, you can send instant messages across 50 languages, from Klingon (yes, Klingon!) to Yucatec Maya. Skype Translator displays an on-screen transcript of the call, too.

Sagie sees Lexifone and similar technology helping to make the world a smaller place. “The ability to change the face of conversation as we know it is very much at our fingertips,” he said.

And while you're waiting for one of these apps to download, enjoy these clips from a classic episode of "Friends" where Joey attempts to master the French language:

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