Isn't it cool when you realise that one of Twitter trending topics is an iOS app? Everyone from John Gruber to Robert Scoble have shared their love about this new iPhone app that uses augmented reality to translate text. This is as simple as pointing at some sign written in English or Spanish (for now) with the camera and the iPhone will display the text… translated! Word Lens is pretty cool and it offers the seamless experience that we could only find in sci-fi books.
With all the praise been retweeted about its speed and convenience, I have read some critics complain about the jizzy characters and limitation to certain fonts. However, I'm glad that I'm a native Spanish speaker to see that the key element in Word Lens is simply… flawed.
Go to the AppStore page here [iTunes Link], you don't need to look any further. The screenshots provided to illustrate the functionality of the app showcase my point. Imagine you are out and about and find a restaurant that advertises "Grilled sausages, French fries and lemonade." These worlds are pretty basic, but you don't need to be a linguist to realise that in any other part of the world, French fries are not going to be "French." They might just be fries or chips. Word Lens works brilliantly identifying each single word in English and translating it to Spanish with no internet connection. However, it just gives you a literal translation that doesn't make any sense.
Since developer Quest Visual has only released a Spanish pack, I dare to provide the following feedback. Please make these considerations with a dictionary update:
- While adjectives in English go before the noun, in Spanish they go after. If you use World Lens to translate a Spanish menu, you might get things like "Sausages grilled" or "Lemonade fresh."
- Literal translations rarely work. While everyone in the US knows what French fries are, "francés patatas fritas" simply doesn't work.
- Words in Spanish have gender. If you want to say that your fries are French, patatas is feminine and plural. While English has one "French," Spanish has four forms to distinguish singular/plural and feminine/masculine.
The second screenshot, a parking sign, has also major mistakes. The simple order "Tow-away" is definitely not "remolque lejos," since Spanish speaking countries have their own tow-away sign with different versions. As you might have expected, the form "Any time" just doesn't work if you translate each single word separately without taking into consideration the context. In the small print saying "for towed cars phone…", cars is translates as "archive," just doesn't impress me much.
Literal or "word-for-word" translation is never going to convey the original sense of the text. The use of augmented technology is great and could be really handy for those looking for a fast translation on the go. Results will be full of errors and will miss idioms and expressions. Why bother?
The promotional video is full of these three mistakes, which makes you laugh if you speak both languages. I'm really amazed by the use of AR technology in Word Lens, but it fails to provide a proper meaningful translation. While many of us complain about the dull AppStore reviews "does what says on the tin," this one actually doesn't. AppFreaks beware: This app is certainly cool and will offer some great moments, but understand the results are not going to be linguistically correct. Despite its great functionality, please think of Word Lens as a joke or novelty app, don't commit the crime of thinking it will give you proper results. Having said this, have fun with it!
Update: Spanish speakers have already noticed the poor dictionary used in Word Lens in technology blog Genbeta