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How to use Google as your universal translator

The search giant offers a variety of tools for translating websites and text from one language to another. Here's how you can tap into Google when you need a decent translator.

Google Translate in action. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

For most of us who surf the Web, Google is probably the closest thing we have to a universal translator. Though far from perfect, Google's translator can usually provide the gist of foreign words, paragraphs, and entire pages converted into your native language.

How can you access Google's translator via the Web and your mobile device? Let's look at the many ways.

First, you can go directly to Google's translation page in your Web browser. Here you can enter a single word, a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire passage of text. Simply type or paste your text in the first box. Google will attempt to detect its language and display the translation in the second box. If Google can't guess the original language, then just click the drop-down arrow next to the detected language and select the correct one. You can also change the translated language by clicking the down arrow to the left of the blue Translate box.

You can listen to the original text or the translation by clicking the speaker icon in the bottom right of the appropriate box. If you modify the original text, Google will automatically translate it as long as the option at the bottom for instant translation is turned on.

You can translate an entire webpage into another language as well. To do this, copy and paste the URL of the page you wish to translate in the first box. Click the link to the URL in the second box. Google should then translate and display the page in the translated language. Clicking a link on the translated page should continue with the translation, so you can surf the entire site in the translated language.

Keep in mind that only straight text will translate. Any text that's actually embedded as part of an image or other object will remain in its original language.

You don't necessarily have to open the official Google translate tool. You can translate text via a search.

For example, type "Google translate" in your browser's search bar or address bar. Google displays a list of results with a simple translation box at the top. Type the text you wish to translate in the first column, and Google automatically translates it in the second column. You can alter either language and see other translations by clicking the "x more translations" down arrow. Google then suggests alternative words and phrases for your translated text.

You can also avoid the middleman and type your translation query directly. For example, if you want to translate the word honeymoon into Italian, simply type "translate honeymoon to italian" at Google's home page or in your browser's address or search bar, and Google supplies the answer. (I know this translation well since my wife and I honeymooned in Italy.)

All of the above assumes that you're using Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, or another browser. Use Google Chrome, and the translation happens more naturally. Open a webpage that's not in your native language, and Chrome asks if you want to translate it. Click the Translate button, and the page is translated in place. You can also view the original page and set an option to automatically translate any foreign-language webpages into your native language.

Okay, so what type of translations skills does Google offer on the mobile front? Well, you can download and install a Google Translate app for iOS and Android. The mobile apps work essentially the same as the website translation tool but with the added bonus that you can speak your text.

Make sure the option to detect the language is selected. Type or speak the text you want translated and then click the Go button. The app then translates your word or phrase. You can tap on the speaker icon to hear the text. You can also enter characters in a foreign language by tapping on the squiggle line button and then typing the text.

Don't have access to the Google Translate app? You can still open the Google Translate webpage on your mobile device and use it just as you would on the desktop.

Google's translation skills may not be ideal. But with access on PCs and mobile devices, it's quick and convenient and tries its best to be helpful whether you need a translation for a single word or an entire website.