Microsoft’s Translator isn’t the first service to attempt to confront Google in the translation game, but it may be one of the first to pose a real challenge to Google Translate. Out of the gate, the app has an Android Wear component, a sorely missed feature in its competitor, and even though Translator does seem quite simplistic and limited, it has most of the basic features covered to warrant a more thorough comparison against Translate.
A different approach
While many of Microsoft’s recent apps have adopted Material Design in their interface, Translator is more subtle about it. Both the welcome and the translation screens’ blurry background and iconography are modern but not exactly Material. The Recent and Pinned screens however, as well as the Settings do fall more in line with Material. And the animations when opening the speech or keyboard translation pages are another delightful detail.
With Translator, focus is on simplicity and quick access to the most important features, unlike Google Translate’s more overwhelming interface. The first has a graphical approach while the second a functional one.
But that’s not to undermine Google Translate’s UI. Forget the welcome screen and the flashy animations, you’re here for the translation and Google knows it. All options – and there are a lot – are accessible from the main screen, and all translations throw you back into that screen when you’re done. It’s both fast and efficient.
But more similar than you’d think
Looks aside, Microsoft and Google have a similar understanding as to what’s needed in a translation app. Both speech and text translations are prominently featured in the two apps. And whether you’re using Translator or Translate, once a translation is done, you can hear the result (for supported TTS languages), copy it, delete it, display it in fullscreen mode (in case you are talking to a stranger and want a clear screen with no distractions), see it in your list of recent translations (if you need to refer to it again), and pin / favorite it.
Microsoft Translator fullscreen result
Google Translate, the behemoth
Words are Google’s forte. A search company lives and dies by knowing words inside and out: how they’re pronounced or written, what they mean in different contexts, and how they’re used across languages. And Google Translate shows that expertise throughout the app.
Instead of a simple language A to language B translation, Google offers a live discussion between both where it will automatically detect the language spoken out of the two and translate it to the other one. If you’re traveling to a country with a foreign dialect or you find yourself in a situation where you need to communicate with someone speaking a different language, this is the next best thing to having a 24/7 interpreter following you around and managing your conversations.
Sure, translation services are often quite literal and unable to glean subtext or different meanings of words depending on context, unlike a person, but if you don’t have boatloads of money to pay for an interpreter, Translate comes close. The feature works well more often than not, although there are instances where it doesn’t attribute the spoken sentence to the correct language and you end up with the most hilarious transcription and translation. I also had a few glitches where I couldn’t launch the live conversation mode, even though I was in the speech dictation screen.
However quirky, the option is there, which is better than Microsoft’s unidirectional speech translation. You can’t even revert the languages in Translator: if you choose English to French, you’ll have to use both drop downs again to switch to French to English. That’s ridiculous.
Image and handwriting recognition
Beside a more developed speech mode and text translations, Google Translate can handle images and handwriting as inputs. Handwriting has a limited benefit over text, but it should be useful when dealing with highly graphical languages like Chinese. The image mode, which resulted from Google’s purchase of Word Lens, was introduced earlier this year, and lets you point your camera at any sign or text and have it overlay the translated words you can understand on top of the foreign ones. It’s incredibly handy for travelers or when reading printed documents — you don’t have to bother typing them into your phone to see what they mean.
Another benefit of Google Translate is its offline mode. Download the pack for the language you want to use (not all are supported, but most are), and you won’t need to be connected to initiate a translation. This also works for the live camera translation. By comparison, Translator relies solely on a connection at this point, which makes it unusable when you’d need it most: while traveling.
And so much more
There are a slew of other thoughtful features sprinkled inside Translate that you won’t find anywhere in Microsoft’s app:
- When typing words, Translate will give you the option to hear not just the output but also the input. It can be useful if you’re not sure how to pronounce a certain word in the language that you’re typing in.
- Beside copying translations, Google lets you share them to other apps. Translator only has a copy feature, and it’s not accessible from the result page, but just from your Recent list.
Even copy and delete are slightly hidden in Translator
- While Translator’s Pinned translations work like Google’s Phrasebook by saving them for later, the latter also offers to sync them across your devices so you can access them whenever and however you want.
- If you’ve chosen the wrong input language, Translate will guess that and ask you if you want to switch to the correct one.
Left: Pharasebook sync Right: Suggested translation language
- Google has a reverse translate feature. You’d think it’s useless since you already got A to B, shouldn’t B give you back A? Well, you’d be surprised. Use this once and you realize that Translate has a lot to learn: it still messes up translations. I had a lot of fun with one Serbian sentence, going back and forth and losing a word and the original meaning with each translation.
A lot of fun can be had reverse translating something. “Trying this out” became “trying.”
- Google Translate can handle SMS translations directly, instead of you having to copy the text from your messaging app and paste it here.
- Google Translate bundles a dictionary with its translations for single words. This presents a list of different possible translations and synonyms you can use, and accounts for the fact that the same word can mean different things or be a verb, or noun, adjective, adverb.
Hola, Bonjour, Ciao
So far, we’ve talked a lot about what both Translator and Translate can do, but haven’t broached the topic of how well they can do it. That depends both on supported languages and accuracy in the translations.
In terms of languages, Google has the upper hand: it supports 90 languages for typing translations. Of these, 40 can be used for the live speech translation and 26 in the camera mode. There are also many different dialects for a few languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, Portuguese, and Spanish) in the speech input mode.
By comparison, Microsoft’s Translate only supports 50 languages as text input, but even less as speech. So even though you can still translate to 50 languages in the speech input screen, you can only translate from 19 languages with limited dialect variations of Chinese, English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Another difference, which may tip the scale Google’s way, is that Microsoft requires you to pick between the Cyrillic and Latin Serbian writings, while Google can accept either as an input and give both as an output.
Left two: Google accepts either latin or cyrillic as Serbian input. Right two: Microsoft wants you to choose beforehand.
While the choice balance favors Google in most cases, be it languages or dialects, there are two instances where Microsoft has the upper hand: it supports Queretaro Otomi and Yucatec Maya, which are spoken in different regions of Mexico and Belize. Google Translate doesn’t.
Since I speak three languages fluently (English, Arabic, and French), I set out to test both apps in different configurations between them.
For single words, the end result was always excellent with Google because of its dictionary feature that gives you all possible translations. However, none of the apps managed to translate discombobulated. Ha!
For short sentences, in most cases, you’d get something that is usable to get the point across, but both apps had their quirks. For example, Microsoft seems to favor a more natural translation, while Google sometimes oddly sticks to a very literal one: ne est is never used in French for example, it’s always n’est, but Google doesn’t seem to get it.
And then Microsoft would sometimes confuse its tenses for no reason, or Google would get its plurals and singulars all messed up.
Left two: Google’s plural is confusing Right two: Why did Microsoft switch to the past tense?
Microsoft also seemed better at recognizing and keeping proper nouns, like Android Police, but Google tried to translate them and even change the capitalization.
Both managed to get that creepy, in “this is so creepy,” means scary but only when translating to French. When sent to Arabic, the translation became a lot more literal, and I got back an Arabic word that means crawling.
Left, Middle: Both get “creepy” right in French Right: but not in Arabic
Moving on to longer sentences with intricate wordings, speech recognition started to falter a bit more on Microsoft’s end, though I wouldn’t call it a clear win for Google’s transcription engines. Errors became a bit more frequent with both, but as with short sentences, the meaning was mostly carried across.
All in all, and that is my personal experience from testing only three languages, I’d put these two equally in terms of result accuracy, but I’d favor Google for single words.
And then there’s your watch
Microsoft Translator’s one real redeeming feature is in its support for Android Wear. The Wear app is a standalone solution that has most of the phone app’s features. You’ll be able to choose the input speech language and the output one, pin the result, and view both your recent and pinned translations all from your wrist. When the output language supports TTS in Translator, you’ll hear the translation come out of your phone. That may be a bit confusing, but since Wear watches don’t have speakers yet, you can’t get the spoken result from your watch.
This can be immensely helpful if you’re traveling and you just want a quick sentence translated. Or if you’re bilingual (or tri, quadri, etc) and you’re often, like me, stuck thinking of a word in one language and wanting to say it in another: you couldn’t bother grabbing your phone, but you may easily check your wrist for a quick translation.
The problem, if you’re trying to have a short conversation with a person speaking a foreign language, is the same as with the Translator phone app: there’s no easy way to flip the languages for speech input. You’ll have to select each language again manually, and that’s not something you’ll realistically do for more than one back-and-forth before wanting to throw your watch into a volcano.
Now there’s one thing to keep in mind. While Google Translate doesn’t have a Wear app per se, Google can do translations right from your wrist. If you simply say, “OK Google, translate I am having such a great day to French,” or, “how do you say You’re so nice in Spanish,” you’ll get a card with the result. On your watch. That’s handy but limited. It won’t understand input languages other than the one you’re speaking your OK Google command in. Well, at least not in any way that I could figure out.
The behemoth and the challenger
Despite its newness, Microsoft Translator manages to hold down the fort on quite a few fronts against Google’s Translate. The basic functionality, whether it’s accurate(ish) speech and text translations, popular supported languages, and various options, is there and works as intended. If that ticks all the boxes you want in a translation app and you own an Android Wear device, Translator should do the job and still allow you the versatility of getting quick results from your watch while traveling or communicating with foreigners.
But the fort doesn’t hold long, and there’s a point at which Google Translate invades Microsoft’s territory so swiftly and so thoroughly that Translator is left bleeding and gasping on the floor. The variety of additional supported languages, offline functionality, camera view, live conversation mode, along with the many little bonus features keep Translate shoulders (and elbows and knees and ankles) above Microsoft’s offering. But let’s not forget that this is the first version of Translator: so many of these features may be added later.
All that’s left to gauge is accuracy. That can only be tested by you, with your speech pattern, your dialect, and your language(s). In my case, it was a slightly even match, but your situation may be different. Luckily, both apps are free so you only have to download them and try for yourself.