Admittedly, at the time of writing, very few of us are doing much international traveling, what with the current global pandemic and all, but you can bet that as soon as we are allowed to, we will. When we can, something I’m really itching to try out are the translation aids which have come out over the last year or so. These are either software- or hardware-based. There are some standalone devices and some apps for smartphones as well. There are also hybrid solutions which are a combination of the two.
Son of Babelfish
Zero Translator is a translation, recording and transcription device for iOS and Android. Out of the box it supports up to 40 languages and 93 different accents. The device itself is a compact four-way microphone with noise cancelling which plugs in to either the Lightning port on the bottom of an iPhone or the USB C port on the bottom of an Android handset.
The other component is the Timekettle app which you download separately for your smartphone, which takes the targeted and noise-cancelled voice recordings, translates them and puts them up on the screen.
There are a variety of different modes: translation, meeting, interview, history and text translation. The device also comes with a neat magnetic card for storing the mic in a pocket or bag and allowing quick release for use.
So why would you use this instead of just using an app on your phone and the built in microphone? With an app, the built-in phone mic is facing just you, whereas this mic has noise cancelling. It has four separate mics which can distinguish between four different speakers.
To use it, just plug the mic in, and provided you have downloaded and installed the software, the application will start automatically.
In translation mode the screen is divided in two, so as you hold the phone between you and a target speaker (or put it on a table), your text is oriented to face you and the listener opposite you has a translation written upside down on their half of the screen for them to read.
Tap your half of the screen and speak, and tap again when you are finished. It then translates your speech into the target language and prints the text on their half of the screen for them to read and speaks it aloud. This way you can conduct two-way conversations in a foreign language, even if you don’t speak a word of it. That’s pretty neat.
If you really get stuck, and it’s too noisy for the mic to pick up your speech, then the text translation mode allows you to type in your exact words to be translated and read by your recipient.
In order for the out-of-the-box app to work, it must have Wi-Fi or network access. You can buy offline language packs for the main languages from the online Zero store to download to your device. (By the way, the points you pay for are called fish, as an oblique Hitchhiker’s Guide reference.) If you plan to go “off piste” with your travels, you need to have some offline packs, and each packs cost 5 fish.
In meeting mode, as with most of the modes, speaker placement has to be quite precise, and people can’t move around too much, as the zone where speech is picked up is large but quite definite. The idea is that you can record and transcribe the meeting. The four speakers of the meeting have their own tracks, and the software distinguishes speakers by their location.
In interview mode, there are two tracks for you and an interviewee. As with meeting mode, the software attempts to transcribe what it has heard as text that you can export.
So what’s it like? Well, I loved the mic, it’s very solidly built and seems to work very well. The software is responsive and seems to understand what you say and translate it accurately, as far as I can tell from the few languages I actually speak a little of.
I did find I have to speak very clearly for the app to understand me. Using the unit in a setting with a number of speakers, unless they spoke singly, the device had some trouble picking out all parts of a conversation – although, to it’s credit, it did separate out comments to individual speakers in most cases, even if it only captured half of what was said.
Also, when the device mishears what you say, it would be really nice to delete that translation rather than have to play that to the native speaker and have them laugh at you.
Another quibble was the mic didn’t fit on my phone in its case, and I had to take it out of the case and use the phone on its own. It’s not a big problem, but it may annoy me if I was using my case to protect the phone while traveling.
One really minor point, which did annoy me more than it should, is the packaging has a very tightly-fitting lid, and getting the product out of the box involved a tug of war between the negative air pressure inside the box and my fingernails. I’d recommend that they install finger cutaways so you can grab the bottom of the box and pull it out.
All that said, I did like the translation function, and most of the time it picked the right words out of my thick British accent and translated them fast and flawlessly.
Zero Translator is a pretty good gadget, and if you travel to countries where you don’t speak the lingo, it’s a handy thing to have. Use the coupon code 6MRMXBF8HXRR and get the translator for just $51.19 for either iOS or Android.