The internet is global, but few people speak more than two languages and too many of us speak only one and rely on apps to help us overcome the language barrier. Apple has long left this automated translation market up to Google and Microsoft, but the iPhone-maker has just announced that iOS 14 will offer real-time automated translation for eleven languages with language packs available for offline translation. But how will Apple’s first effort compare to the mature apps from its competitors or the professional translation services from Acolad and other firms?

At launch, Apple’s Translate app will offer automated translation of speech or short written sentences between 11 languages including English, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Arabic, Portuguese, and Russian, with others expected to follow in the future. Simplicity is central to the app, which lets users select two languages and then either hit record for audio or paste in a key word or phrase and the app will automatically transform the text from one language to the other.

The app may seem a little basic compared to Google’s various translation offerings that can interpret text in everything from images to audio to full documents between a vast array of languages in seconds, but critically Apple Translate can work offline. This means not only will you not have to share your data with a huge data-harvesting firm like Google, but also that you can use the app in remote places where their is no mobile internet or you just don’t want to pay the extortionate mobile roaming charges. Apple has long claimed that because it makes its money from selling phones not ads, it is by nature a privacy-focused company, and this app is another way for Apple CEO Tim Cook to show that to its millions of loyal customers.

These automated translation services are improving every year and have evolved into some of the most useful apps for travellers and holidaymakers, but they are still a long way from becoming the Babel Fish of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Governments, businesses, and health services that need reliable translations done with an understanding of specialised industry knowledge still rely on professional translation services. And as global firms continue to try and appear more local with game developers and media companies increasingly looking to translate all their titles to attract new users around the world, the global translation services market is expected to continue its growth for years to come.

Technologists have told us for years that we are on the precipice of an age where software will allow all the world to understand one another. However, in reality whilst apps like Google Translate are infinitely better today than just a few years ago, the complexity, local variations, and evolving nature of language makes automated translation a particularly difficult problem to solve. And for those that need to translate not just the words but the nuance and knowledge between languages, human translators remain the best way to make sure everyone is being properly understood.

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