Expectation vs Reality: Google’s New Live Camera Translation

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Photo by jpmatth
February 9, 2017

You’d be forgiven for not noticing that the Google Translate app recently rolled out a big upgrade. However, Google Translate now allows you to point your camera at some Japanese text and translate it live.

I remember trying to awkwardly translate some kanji at a restaurant in an earlier version and ordered what I thought was some “Western food” but instead was delivered a fish — it’s heart neatly placed next to it on the plate and its eyes staring back, judging me. But with the advent of this update, I decided to give it a test to see if it could save me in the future.

Café au lait hidden warning

I decided to start small. Looking at my messy desk, I spotted this morning’s Café au Lait, a latte brand you can buy at all the convenience stores. Having seen the new design on its carton, I decided to investigate what the strapping young man on the front was trying to tell me.

It was clear that Cafe Au lait — or should I say, “nine ferrite” — was trying to warn me about the upcoming “Hee breather war.” I guessed the only way to stop this was to buy more. Clearly a hidden message.

53.1% of women know the internet

I assumed my previous restaurant attempt failed due to a poor angle. So, I decided to grab some junk mail from the mountain that appears in my letterbox every morning. I had always wondered what deals I was missing out on. So I picked one that looked like it offered the most amazing opportunity, and with credit card in hand, scanned the image.

It turns out that the flyer that I originally thought was promoting an internet security program, discussed the harrowing topic of children and nets. It also highlighted the fact that, apparently, 53.1 percent of women know something about the internet I don’t. Yet another conspiracy revealed by this new version of the app.

The rise of the mosquitos

I wanted to see if my problems were due to training the camera on sentences that were too difficult. So I tried it on the simplest Japanese text I knew: Genki 1, a Japanese study book. For those that aren’t aware, Genki 1 is not only an excellent resource for learning Japanese, but it also tells the tale of Mary and her Japanese friend, Takeshi, as they learn Japanese together. It gives off a real star-crossed-lover’s vibe.

I tried it on the first dialog in the book: “What time is it?”

I became slightly worried that every time I thought someone had been asking me the time, they had actually been requesting an apology while I mounted a mosquito. I assumed that this was because the character か (or “ka”) is not only used to turn a word or sentence into a question — it’s also the actual word for mosquito in Japanese.

Laptop message

It was time for me to take the app into the real world. As luck would have it, when I arrived at work in the morning, I found a message stuck on my laptop. Perhaps this had something to do with a new schedule or a memo outlining some new rules.

Unfortunately for me, it just seemed to be another advertisement. This time, talking about a new movie — Faculty and Staff: Rise of the Screwdriver. The top of people’s laptops seemed a strange place to advertise it though.

Furniture booklet

Undeterred by my uncovering of multiple conspiracies and a warning about the upcoming “Hee War,” I decided to give it one last shot. I’m moving house and recently had a furniture magazine delivered to me. Noticing the incredible invention of waterproof carpet, I decided to see what other amazing products the booklet was advertising.

With the help of my Google Translate, I learnt that it was not only advertising waterproof carpets, but also that the water in this image was the God Water and that he had taken the form of a window.

Not quite ready for prime time

Despite its flaws, I love the technological leap toward which the app strives, even though it made a few mistakes in my different attempts at getting it to interpret. I was able to understand the meanings of Japanese copy and sentences with the added help of the apps standard translation feature. If I was simply using it to translate a simple word or kanji group (for example, on an ATM screen), most of the time it returned a result that allowed me to discern some meaning.

I can only assume some of the results came back as a departure from their original meaning due to either my angle, lack of patience or lighting (making the reading of the kanji difficult to isolate).

Either that, or I’m on my way to uncovering a new Japanese conspiracy.

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British teacher, Japan explorer and writer. I will exchange witty jokes for Marmite.

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  • Ashefall

    10/10 humor in this article. Heres to hoping that one day this technology will allow people to break language barriers when visiting other countries. Excuse me while I go prepare for the “hee war” and “rise of the screwdriver”

    • Alex Sturmey

      Hello Ashefall, glad you enjoyed the article! It’s a great step, and I’m really looking forward to what it might bring in the future. Make sure to pack lots of Cafe Au lait for the war.

  • Ka Na

    Of course it won’t translate shit (as demonstrated quite nicely), but it’s useful to give you readings of kanji that you don’t know.

    • Kai2591

      This is actually what I use it for XD

  • Himi Tsu

    If the live version may not be the best yet, the photo version (same but taking a picture) is really great. I’ve used it a lot and it proved itself to be a great help.

    • Alex Sturmey

      it’s what I use most of the time. It’s much better than the live version, but hopefully the live version will soon catch up.

  • Rubie Martinez

    lol i need to try this out.

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