Sprechen Sie Google? A New Web Translator

The company's newest app, available to the public on May 6, provides near perfect translation of foreign text after you snap a photo of it with your smart phone

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Illustration by Jason Lee for Time

Star Trek's handheld tricorder device could scan new life-forms, analyze data and communicate with aliens. It's one of sci-fi's greatest fictional gadgets, and now Google is taking us one step closer to living the Gene Roddenberry dream. The company's newest app, available to the public on May 6, provides near perfect translation of foreign text after you snap a photo of it with your smart phone.

Companies have been tinkering with electronic pocket translators for years, but these devices generally involve a lot of typing — and a lot of griping about their limited vocabularies. Likewise, low-tech alternatives like the illustration-intensive Me No Speak books get you only so far.

To create something that's really versatile, Google's new software builds on two pre-existing apps: Goggles, which launched in December for Android phones and is coming to the iPhone this year, is essentially a visual search engine. Take a photo of any landmark, sign, book or bar code, and Google will scour its vast database and within seconds pull up links to the image, whether it's the history of the church you just photographed or reviews of the hotel you're standing in front of. The other app, called Translate, has been around since 2008 and translates words you've typed on your smart phone into one of 52 languages. By combining these apps in a single (if clunkily named) entity, Goggles Translate lets travelers simply take a pic of the words that need translating. No more hunting and pecking on tiny keyboards.

Goggles Translate, which is available for Android phones but will ultimately be platform neutral, can "read" or visually scan words in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish and translate them into any other of those languages plus about 10 more, including Afrikaans and Albanian — with additional languages coming soon.

I recently set out to test Goggles Translate in the real world with the app's lead engineers, Martin Jansche and David Petrou. (They're fans of the alliteration in Google Goggles.) We went to a Puerto Rican restaurant and photographed the menu. One dish, patitas de cerdo, sounded interesting; Goggles Translate informed me that it was pigs' feet.

That test was pretty easy, so our next target was a Spanish-language newspaper. I could fit the first paragraph or two into one photo. The translation to English was really fast; it took about five seconds. The syntax was a little off, even comical at times, but I got the gist of what was going on. Then again, I wasn't expecting perfection. The app is being released as a Google Labs product, and the Labs tag means that it's still in development. The more we use it, the better it will get because we'll be encouraged to give feedback to engineers who make wild and crazy ideas a reality. Plus, it's free, so why not try it?

Goggles Translate is arriving just ahead of the summer-travel season. The app won't turn your phone into a full-fledged tricorder, but it can at least let you order food, skim headlines and find the nearest train station without looking like a total tourist.