iOS 15’s Translator Is Like Sci-Fi Made Real

It’s no C3PO, but then what is?

Key Takeaways

  • iOS 15 brings a live, simultaneous conversation mode to the Translator app.
  • Two people can converse, and Siri translates and reads out the results.
  • Don’t let the name "Siri" put you off here.
man selling fruit while talking to people off camera

Tim Mossholder / Unsplash

In sci-fi movies, races from different planets miraculously speak English with puny humans, thanks to some hand-wavy universal translation device. Now, that device is coming to your iPhone. 

Apple's super-simple-but-effective Translate app arrived on the iPhone with iOS 14. In iOS 15, it will come to the iPad, along with a radical addition: Conversation mode. This lets two people converse in different languages. You tap the microphone button and say something. That’s it. The app transcribes and translates your words, then Siri reads the result. It’s both simple, and staggeringly useful.

"That's a huge gift to people who are traveling, working with people who speak in a different tongue, or just wanting to learn something new," cybersecurity analyst Eric Florence told Lifewire via email. "But it's the ease at which it is all done that really sets Translate apart. There are numerous translation apps on the web and available on multiple types of phone."

Apple Sauce

Translate’s Conversation feature is a perfect example of Apple at its best. You open the Conversation tab, see two boxes from which to choose your preferred languages, and come upon a big microphone icon. It’s obvious how it works, and as soon as you tap the icon, ask your server for two beers, and the translation plays over the speaker, the waiter also will know exactly what’s going on. 

"That's a huge gift to people who are traveling, working with people who speak in a different tongue, or just wanting to learn something new."

And if tapping the icon to speak is too much work, you can choose Auto Translate instead. This keeps the mic running and detects speech as it happens, playing the result whenever there’s a pause. The app can even detect languages, and will recognize each speaker. 

"This isn't new technology," says Florence. "But, like they have done before, Apple is taking something that already existed and making it run better, smoother, easier. The Apple Translate app is just so simple and straightforward and user-friendly."

Translate Everywhere

The Translate app joins the already-existing website translation feature in Safari, and is just one part of a deep, system-wide integration in iOS 15. Anywhere you can select text, you can now choose to translate it, right there. This works in iMessages, tweets, email, and even classified ads in a local eBay app.

And it ties in with iOS 15’s wild new Live Text, which automatically and instantly recognizes text in photos, pictures, and even live through the iPhone’s camera. With one tap, you can translate this text.

"Now when someone is journeying to another country or trying to learn a new language, they will be able to do it with the same sort of ease they find when sending an iMessage or reading an email," says Florence. "It will make communication so much simpler."

The app is surprisingly good, although we’ve only tried it in quiet environments so far. But it suffers the same limitations as any machine translator.

"The Translate app does what I would affectionately call the 'Google translate' treatment. You may be able to communicate, but things like syntax and nuance of language will be off," Christen Costa, CEO of Gadget Review, told Lifewire via email. "It will frequently mess up sentence structure and without context that can really throw you off."

In testing, I also noticed the conversation translator often literally translates the word structure from English to, say, Spanish, instead of taking the concept and translating it into local idiom.

iOS' Translate app and Conversation mode on iPad translating UK English to Spanish

Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

Then again, it’s more than good enough for most purposes. If your goal is to communicate with people whose language you don’t speak or understand, then the Translate app will get you through. It may not give you the correct verb tense in Spanish, but so what?

For more advanced translations, humans are still required. But to avoid misunderstandings, this is perfect. And don’t discount the fun factor. I can see this being a great way to break the ice when traveling. For a while at least.

In a year or so, Americans will just barge into a conversation with this app, instead of their current MO, which is to just start shouting in English and expect everybody to understand.

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