Depending which browser/toolbar you use, you may have noticed google offering to translate foreign language sites to you native tongue. I’ve used this on-page and have found that it’s pretty slick. It generally does a better job with languages in the same family as English, but with a little creativity in interpretation, it can even pull off some of the Asian languages. Google has some of the best text analysis software out there: from determining synonyms to correcting absolutely horrendous spelling. It makes a bit of sense that this intense algorithmic understanding of language could be used to create some pretty good translation. It’s still nowhere near what a live translator can do, but with much on the web, it meets the criteria of “good enough”.
Now the neat thing about all of this is that smart phones are starting to gain some serious ground. More and more people are carrying around phones that house powerful yet efficient processing systems that, most importantly, are starting to get fast, reliable connections to the Internet. That last point bodes well for cloud based services such as Google translate. With a “mostly” always-on Internet connection, you can now carry that good enough translator in your pocket wherever you go.
This would have been badass when I moved to China. I didn’t know the language and outside of major cities, very few people know English. Would reliance on this technology have prevented me from learning Chinese? Probably not. My worn out, tattered Lonely Planet guide sure helped me in a few situations, but I’d say it challenged me to try out a lot of the language that I didn’t have a firm grasp on.
Anyways, Google Translate for iPhone/Android: awesome.