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Using iTranslate and Google Translate apps to communicate with Syrian refugees

Last week, I frequently found myself wishing that I was fluent in Arabic. Being fluent only in English and conversational in Spanish, most of my communication while volunteering at refugee camps in northern Greece was a mix of hand gestures, a few random English-based conversations, and a lot of digital translation aided by two apps on my aging iPhone 5.

iTranslate Voice - This app is phenomenal. It supports 42 languages and it seems to actually work most of the time. I was able to speak simple sentences in English and the app would output both text and audio of what I said back in Arabic. Plus, it also lets you input and edit text for auto"magic" translation. iTranslate proved so useful for communication that those individuals who happened to have a working smartphone immediately downloaded it. At one point, I was having multiple conversations in a refugee tent using the app. iTranslate worked just as well on Android-based devices as it did on iOS. I've now used iTranslate for conversations in Greek, Arabic, and's amazing.

Google Translate - Like most apps from Google, Translate is fairly useful. The Google Translate app (at least for English to Arabic translation) is at its best when you're copying and pasting text. The voice input/output just wasn't as good as iTranslate. And, when you're in a remote field in northern Greece, you have to use what works. However, Google Translate was a solid back-up for iTranslate and it did come in handy for some translations of Greek text on a document. For those languages that Google Translate can auto-translate visually on the fly, that is a marvelous experience.

While it's not a translation app per se, I have to give kudos to WhatsApp for being universally (now in use by 1 billion people each month!), the app de jour for everyone...refugees, volunteers, etc. My WhatsApp is filled with chats in Arabic that I've translated using Google Translate. Plus, WhatsApp on the web makes multi-tasking and long-form writing/responses much easier.

What apps do you use for on-the-go language translation?

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