If you are on holiday in a place with a different language to yours, perhaps you can help me by testing Google Translate’s newly expanded visual translation service.

You need to download the Google Translate app on to your phone and enter the language you wish to translate from. You then tap the camera icon, focus on a sign and watch Google translate it into English.

I had mixed results translating screen-based images from my desk. Google translated a Spanish sign into English as “not go in scooter”, which is literal, if not grammatical. A German sign translating as “pedestrians please other side of the street use” also suggests that the visual translation tool is intended to be functional rather than elegant.

Last week, Google announced that it was increasing the number of languages from which your camera can translate from seven to 27. The languages available now range from Finnish to Filipino.

However ropey the results (and yours might be better), visual translation is quite an achievement. As Google explains, before it can translate the words, the app has to decide which the letters are, separating them from surrounding objects, such as trees, and ignoring smears and smudges.

It finds the letters, Google says, by looking at “blobs of pixels that have similar colour to each other and are also near other similar blobs of pixels”.

Visual translation will improve, just as Google Translate’s typing translation system has improved. That is also an achievement.

In his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? , David Bellos, a Princeton University language expert, says Google has created an entirely new type of translation system.

It does not bother with meaning, but instead relies on a huge mass of previous translations of EU documents, publications by the UN and all its agencies and other official announcements in different languages.

It also searches company reports, books and articles posted online in more than one language.

Instead of translating what you ask it to, Google Translate looks at where your phrases or sentences have already been translated and decides, statistically, which is most likely to be the best version.

You may have noticed, as Bellos tells us, that Google Translate, while relying on superfast computing and data mining, is “built upon the millions of hours of labour of human translators”.

Google also requires humans to improve its translations. When you use the Google Translate typing translation feature, you see a small icon saying “wrong?” that allows you to submit your own, better translation.

While Google Translate has improved, it is still not good enough for any credible business to use it for anything other than getting a general idea of what someone else has said.

You certainly should not use it to provide a translation of your corporate website. “All this we encourages it to continue with our goals voluntarism”, is the way Google Translate interprets a French announcement last week from Sébastien Bazin, chief executive of AccorHotels.

The truly impressive feature of Google Translate is its voice option. You tap the microphone icon, say something in your language and hear it repeated in translation. It is meant to be a pocket-sized interpreter.

I tried it for both French and Greek. The results were sufficiently impressive for me to wonder how many businesses have used it for discussions between people with different languages.

In many cases today, these conversations take place in English. This can be difficult when English is not the native language of either side, and even more difficult when a native English speaker turns up, bamboozling everyone else with colloquial chat and figurative language. Google Translate’s voice feature may be better than some of these discussions. Many of the nuances may be lost — but they are often lost anyway when people are not speaking their own language.

For the important conversations, you still need a skilled human interpreter, and you need a proper translator for company documents, announcements and web materials.

But it is no longer impossible to imagine a day when, having done such superb work and put it online, many human translators have done themselves out of a job.

michael.skapinker@ft.com
Twitter: @Skapinker

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