I started writing this column while flying back from a great month-long vacation in Egypt, Turkey, and Italy. I am writing it now because, a few days ago, I got an email from our staff editor asking about the column, which he needed almost instantly. With thoughts of my vacation swirling about in my head as I thought about the topic I should choose, I came across an idea that can help in your travels (whether for recreation or business), in your office, and perhaps even in your personal life.
I live in a highly multicultural area (the San Francisco Bay area), where people regularly speak numerous languages other than English. Not just primarily Spanish, as when I was a child in the San Joaquin Valley in central California, but a variety of languages from countries all over the world—a veritable Tower of Babel.
I took French in college and discovered on my first trip to Italy many years ago that my French helped me understand Italian to a certain extent. Nevertheless, I could not speak it beyond a few words (mostly hello, goodbye, and a variety of Italian foods). On this most recent trip, my French had deteriorated to the point that it helped very little with the Italian. I had no clue with respect to Arabic or Turkish. Nevertheless, I survived easily and had little problem expressing what I needed when I had questions or required assistance or when I was negotiating with a vendor over price (as is the custom in Egypt, Turkey, and also, to a lesser extent, in Italy). In fairness, since my first trip to Europe, English has become far more commonly spoken throughout the world, and I was surprised by how many people I encountered who spoke English fairly well. A great many more spoke some English, which made things easier. Nevertheless, I had to deal with a significant language gap on many occasions.
In my law office here in the United States, I also have encountered languages I could not speak—when interacting with prospective clients, workers, vendors, and service providers. Many companies I hired to do maintenance or modification work on my house hired workers with limited English capabilities, making it difficult to communicate with them.
As I traveled over the years, I learned that most of the businesses dealt with multiple languages on a daily basis. Many of them became multilingual. In more recent years, I learned that many of the vendors and their workers use a translation app they access with their phones (often Google Translate). I had previously tried Google Translate; it works fairly well when it has WiFi access, but it does not work well without good WiFi. As I did not always have WiFi available to me, the idea of an Internet-based translator struck me as problematic. Even translation devices with their own built-in WiFi connectivity often left something to be desired due to a poor connection (or none at all). It turns out that most translators have at least a partial dependence on Internet access.
Most of you likely already know that I regularly do product reviews and that, with Ashley Hallene, I create the annual Tech Gift Guide. In connection with this year’s Gift Guide, I planned to test a handful of translation devices while I traveled through three countries whose languages I did not speak.
I played with the translators a bit prior to the flight and read the manuals on the flight to Egypt (my first stop). By the time I arrived, I already had a clear favorite. I used one or another of the translators whenever necessary, and they all did a creditable job translating between English and the language of whatever country in which I found myself.
Many translators, including my device of choice, will download some languages and allow you to type in what you need to say with or without the Internet. The conversational translation feature using spoken words proved unsatisfactory in many situations, absent a good Internet connection; mostly, they would not work. The text translation saved those interactions for me.
As most of you know by now, I am not a fan of using public WiFi, so I chose not to do that. Undoubtedly, if I had been willing to do that, the situation might have been better. When the translator had its own access and it worked, the problem ceased to exist. When my personal hot spot worked, the problem ceased to exist. Unfortunately, life is not perfect, and sometimes you just cannot get a functional Internet connection.
For those of you not yet aware of this, you can get personal hot spots with their own secure cellular connection through most providers. You can also get hot spots for international use with various data packs, depending on where you will travel. As many of you will want to know which hot spot I use for international travel, it is a 4G device I bought before COVID from a company called GlocalMe. The device, the G4 Pro, remains a current product and sells for $144.49. GlocalMe sells both the devices and the data packs. The company recently announced a 5G hot spot called Numen Air, and I will upgrade to that before my next international trip (actually, I just ordered one). The company currently has it on sale for $297.49. My domestic device came from Verizon, and the hot spot in my car comes from AT&T. There are other possibilities, but when I got my car, it was already set up with a trial of the AT&T package. It worked fine, so I did not change it. If you don’t already have a portable hot spot, I recommend that you get one because it will give you a secure Internet connection when you are out and about, traveling domestically, or globe-trotting internationally. Even though my phone and iPad have the ability to function as hot spots, I always carry at least one separate hot spot with me when I travel, and always from a different carrier than my telephone provider.
The Vasco V4
While most of the translators I tried worked competently and easily enough, I chose the Vasco V4 as my favorite. The V4 represents the top of Vasco’s line. Vasco also offers a less expensive M-3 and a third device called the Mini (no longer for sale on the Vasco website but available from third-party vendors such as Walmart). I had two of the three in my bag of translators—the Mini and the V-4—when I left for my trip. Although I liked the diminutive size of the Mini, a comparison of the function and features between the Mini and the V4 left me underwhelmed with the Mini. The Mini worked adequately, but the V4 worked better. I also had three other manufacturers’ translator offerings with me. They, too, proved underwhelming when compared to the V4.
The V4 comes in your choice of five colors: black, gray, red, white, and blue. The translator works with 108 languages for photo translation, 90 for text translation, and 76 for voice translation. It comes with free lifetime Internet connectivity, but not surprisingly, the connectivity works better in some places than others. You can get a complete list of the languages and full details about the devices on Vasco’s website. You also can go through a helpful tutorial there.
Other stand-alone translators you may want to consider besides those from the Vasco line include Timekettle’s WT2 Edge/W3 and Fluentalk T1 devices, among a long list of other manufacturers’ offerings.
I do not suggest that the others are not functional or good. I have not tried all of them. I can only say that I have tried a dozen or so and like the V4 the best and that it worked very well as I used it for travel, general communication, and even in my practice.
Using Translator Devices
A word of caution: None of the translators is 100 percent accurate (if that even means anything, given the ambiguities inherent to language usage and general communications). The V4 reports a 96 percent accuracy performance level. While certainly not perfect, it represents an excellent performance level. In truth, I suspect that certified live translators likely do not perform at a level that accurate. I say that as someone who has had bilingual clients with me where a certified translator was used both in depositions and in court. I have had clients swear to me that the human translator was not accurately translating from one language to the other and back but was embellishing things or, sometimes, even just getting them wrong. I have personally observed judges admonish certified translators to simply translate from one language to the other without any embellishments, explanations, or enhancements after the translations became an issue.
I have not yet seen a situation where a deposition or courtroom testimony was translated by a machine. I suspect that day may not be far in the distance. In the meantime, you can use a portable stand-alone translator to help you understand and communicate with your clients and witnesses, double-check a human translator’s translation to see if it is suspicious or questionable, and simply conduct normal business. As an aside, if your bilingual client, your human translator, and your stand-alone translation device all agree on the meaning of something, chances are pretty decent that they got it right.
Choosing a Device
If you do not have a portable stand-alone translator, I recommend that you look into getting one. They don’t cost much (from under a hundred dollars to around $500). Get it, learn how to use it, keep it charged, keep it with you, and make use of it.
Some things to look for in a portable translator:
- How small is it? Will it fit conveniently in a pocket or brief bag? The more compact, the more likely you will carry it.
- How many languages will it work with? Not all translators are made the same. Some handle a relatively small number of languages, others in excess of 100. If you get one that handles a smaller number of languages (they generally cost less), make sure it handles the ones most critical to you.
- How flexible is it? A device with abilities to interpret live conversation, text, and photographic entries beats a device offering only one or two of those options.
- Will it download languages? The ability to download language files makes the device more useful when Internet access is limited.
- What about response speed? The faster the translation turnaround time, the more useful the device.
- Does it have its own Internet access? This can be a nice selling point, depending on the quality of that access. It is better to get a device that has its own access than one that does not. That said, plan on having other means of access available to augment whatever comes with the system.
- How is the acoustical quality? A good microphone and speaker are critical to accuracy.
- How long does the battery last? The longer the battery life, the better. I prefer rechargeable batteries, but don’t let the battery run down. Most rechargeable devices, like your phone, can draw supplemental power from a power bank. You should likely get one, if you do not already have one.
Most of the stand-alone translator makers I looked at had their own company websites and sold devices on those sites. You can also find most of the translators on Amazon.