Chocolate bathroom? Translation tools for travel

Visiting Argentina, Crave contributor Eric Mack tries to avoid erupting volcanos and communicate his cave claustrophobia. Google Translate, Kindle, apps--which is best? The answer might surprise you.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
4 min read

Translation tools are helpful when ordering what appears to be a "chocolate bathroom" (green text) from a fro-yo stand in Santiago, Chile. Johanna DeBiase

We had only been in Buenos Aires for a few hours last month when my wife and I realized that our Spanish-English dictionary and Latin America phrasebook were still sitting on a bookshelf back at home. "Not cool," my wife said simply.

So I made a trip to El Ateneo, one of the biggest and certainly most beautiful bookstores south of the Panama Canal and picked up the only paperback dictionary in the house--a thick, clunky volume with a neon orange cover meant for speakers of Mexican Spanish, which is quite different from the Argentine dialect.

After a few times stopping in the middle of a crowd to pull out the big, glowing book, I became worried that I might inadvertently start directing traffic; I quickly retired the dead-tree translation method and started looking for a less conspicuous, digital solution. I found three top contenders, each with their own pros and cons. Here's the rundown.

Solution 1--Kindle loaded with Merriam-Webster's Spanish-English Translation Dictionary:
PROS: For a long trip abroad, it's tough to beat an Amazon Kindle. Bring as many books as you want without worrying about weight and track down whatever info you need without schlepping across Avenida Santa Fe to El Ateneo. The search feature on the Merriam-Webster edition of the translation dictionary is especially efficient, making it easy to track down the right word.

A translation dictionary loaded on our Kindle made it easier to know where to go in case of volcanic eruption, and which fish not to play with. Johanna DeBiase

Unlike translation apps, going the digital-dictionary route also more often gives multiple word or phrase possibilities, providing more accurate translations. My Kindle saw heavy use in Argentina's restaurants, stores, and anywhere else where I had a little space and time to get the translation down, including the successful purchase of just the right jacket when early autumn conditions in the Andes proved to be a little more chilly than we bargained for.

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CONS: The Kindle isn't that much less conspicuous than my bright orange paper dictionary. While I felt comfortable pulling it out in most parts of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, I probably wouldn't feel secure taking it out of the hotel room in Nairobi and many other international locales for fear of being an easy mark. I could barely fit it in my pants pocket--and at 6-feet, 3-inches I'm not a small guy--and certainly not without looking a bit dorky (yes, go ahead, make your "Is that a Kindle in your pocket or..." joke). Also, don't forget to buy both the Spanish-to-English and English-to-Spanish dictionaries. Merriam-Webster splits them up in to two separate purchases on the Kindle store.

Solution 2--Google Translate for Android
PROS: Probably the mostly widely known and used of the many translation apps out there, there's a lot to like here. Voice input and text-to-speech are among the best available, and Google Translate's database of more than 50 languages is the engine for most other translation apps, at least on the Android Market.

CONS: I downloaded Google Translate to my Droid 2 from the Market over the hotel Wi-Fi and assumed all my linguistic challenges would be taken care of for the duration of my stay in South America, but the moment I stepped out of the building, the app was rendered useless. With no CDMA network available for thousands of miles, and Google Translate requiring a 3G connection to access its database, I was back to square one. Even if I had a global phone on me, international roaming data rates still would have sent me looking for another option, and many day trips outside the city would have left me without data access, even with a GSM phone.

Solution 3--Jibbigo
PROS: After Google failed to deliver, I turned to a handful of apps with offline translation database access. The first few were lackluster, wonky, or had too few words in their database, and then I found Jibbigo. Available for Android and iOS for free, you pay to download each pair of languages that you need to work in ($5 for English and Spanish, $28 for Japanese and English, for example). It quickly became my go-to tool for translating on the fly to augment my gringo Spanish.

Some things just don't translate. Johanna DeBiase

When a bus full of Argentines on a glacier tour grilled me on America's economic situation and President Obama, I feverishly swiped some key words into Jibbigo to help convey the on-the-ground view from the Estados Unidos with great success. I was thrilled, but the Argentines seemed bummed to hear that we still had fewer living in poverty stateside than in Argentina.

CONS: I found Jibbigo's speech recognition to be more or less useless. Even the slightest cafe chatter or distant subway rumble seemed to throw it off completely (when the victory marches through the streets for the local soccer team started, forget about it), and there was rarely a time when translation was needed in a quiet room.

While its database had more of the words I needed to know than the other apps I tried, it did come up empty every now and then, sending me back to the Kindle dictionary.

All in all, Google Translate might outperform Jibbigo and the Kindle under ideal situations, but that's not the way travel usually goes. I find Jibbigo the most versatile tool, whether ordering yet another unbelievable Argentine variation on the delectable dulce de leche; attempting to figure out why what appears to be a chocolate bathroom ("baño de chocolate") is on a fro-yo menu; or trying to communicate my "claustrophobia" to our tour guide for local caves.

Jibbigo proved helpful in dissecting the area's geology and American politics, on a trip to Patagonia's "Black Glacier." Johanna DeBiase