Google's big news this week is the rollout of Interpreter Mode, a feature that lets you use the Google Assistant to translate everything you say in real time. It's activated with the phrase "Hey Google, be my French translator," or whatever language you need.
It's a fantastic feature. I know, because I've already used a very good version of it, part of Google's Google Translate app. Very fortunately for us, my husband and I had Google Translate loaded on our smartphones when we visited Japan earlier this year.
Japan can be a somewhat challenging environment if you don't speak the language. We native English speakers tend to be spoiled when traveling overseas because English is commonly spoken (although not always well) in many nations around the globe. For many years, it's been the standard international language.
A lot of Japanese people, especially those who work in hotels do speak English, but it appears to be a challenging language for them. And, especially outside the most tourist-ridden areas of Tokyo and Kyoto, there are fewer people who can speak and understand English than you might expect. There's the fact that they don't use the Roman alphabet, which means you can't make a guess at how to pronounce things. And then there's Japanese society, which is not always welcoming to outsiders. Most people we encountered were very friendly to us, but some acted standoffish, either simply because we were foreigners or--more likely--because we had unintentionally done something they considered impolite. Japanese etiquette is very complex and way beyond the understanding of a casual visitor. Clearly, when it came to communication, we needed all the help we could get.
In Tokyo, we picked a great and affordable little hotel well away from Shinjuku, which seemed to be home to a lot of tourist attractions and hotels, in a neighborhood called Okachimachi, basically an entire district of cheap shopping. There weren't that many Westerners around. So when the housekeeper knocked on our door that first day, a look of surprise crossed her face when I opened the door. But after a beat, she reached in her pocket, pulled out her smartphone and typed something on it, likely into Google Translate or some Japanese equivalent. Then she showed me her phone, which said, "I have to clean the room."
I opened Google Translate and typed in, "When do you have to clean the room?" and showed her the resulting Japanese characters. Going back and forth like that, we quickly agreed that we would be out within an hour and that she had been right to open our windows while we were having breakfast.
A phone conversation.
As we played a bit more with Google Translate over the next few days, we found that we could say phrases into our smartphones and it would render them in both spoken and written Japanese. And when others spoke Japanese to our phones, it would translate it into spoken and written English. As with Interpreter Mode, Google Translate has a conversation option, where it will render both spoken and written phrases in both languages so that both parties can converse using a single phone.
This was almost literally a lifesaver in restaurants, not only to help with ordering, but also because eggplant makes my husband very ill and it turns up pretty often in Japanese cuisine. Everywhere we ate, he would say "I am very allergic to eggplant," into his phone, then tap the button to translate and a woman's voice would say: "Watashi wa nasu ni hijō ni arerugī ga arimasu." Each time, a look of confusion on the server's face transformed into understanding, followed by smiling, pantomimed assurances that the message was understood and that his dinner wouldn't harm him. And it never did.
We knew Google Translate was awfully useful, but didn't realize quite how much until we were suddenly deprived of it. We discovered there was only one reasonably priced restaurant within a short walk from our Kyoto hotel, but that one was all we needed. A tiny, neighborhood place, it consisted of about 15 bar stools arranged around a bar where the owner dispensed drinks but also fabulous food. The first time we opened the door and peered inside, a dozen friendly people called to us and waved us in out of the cold.
We were charmed, but the supposedly English menu held very little information, not all of it comprehensible. No problem, we thought, pulling out our phones. Then we discovered that the towering buildings surrounding us completely blocked out any cell signal and the little restaurant had no WiFi. Fortunately, one of the other patrons worked in tourism and spoke excellent English. He conveyed the all-important eggplant message and also helped us figure out what to order. We made a friend that night, and we liked the place so much we returned the following night, our last in Japan.
Thank goodness we had Google Translate everywhere else on our trip. Now that it works with the Google Assistant, it'll be even handier next time.