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Seeing the *Word* Through New Eyes

December 23, 2010
Spanish addition

¿Comprendes las palabras? ©JF Sebastian, via Flickr

If you’ve ever traveled to a country where you didn’t understand the language, you’re keenly aware of the feelings of helplessness and confusion that arise when you can’t read or comprehend something as simple as a street sign. Phrase books can help out a great deal when you’re trying to speak, but what about when you’re trying to understand? What then?

Meet WordLens.

WordLens is a really unique translation app for the iPhone. I first found out about it a couple of days ago from my brother C* who recently tested the English to Spanish version of the app at work. Point your iPhone’s camera at words or a block of text in a language you don’t understand and WordLens will translate the text right there, in place. Although my brother admitted the app becomes slightly clumsier when handling larger blocks of text, he assured me that it really does work.

See WordLens in action.

Neat, huh?

But I’m of two minds about WordLens. On one hand, I think it’s cool, an ingenious tool that’s bound to become indispensable to the traveler locating himself or herself in places where he or she doesn’t speak the native language. It could certainly be a useful device in encouraging travelers to widen their horizons by visiting places they might not have considered before because of the language barrier.

On the other hand, I think it has the potential to create lazy travelers and continue to enlarge what I call the “bubble of the familiar.” With constant, immediate access to the people and things that make us feel comfortable via smart phones and the internet, I’m afraid that, as travelers, we’re consistently creating distance between ourselves and the cultural landscapes we explore through travel. Immersing yourself in a non-native language is the best and fastest way to learn it but with WordLens, the app does all the work for you. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think it’s completely positive either.

On the other hand it might be helpful to immediately know that a sign says “Beach Closed: Recent Shark Attack.” I really don’t want to become a part of the next installation of the Jaws film franchise.

So, what do you think about WordLens? Will it open doors to explore new places or enclose the traveler within the bubble of the familiar?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2010 10:55 pm

    This is a great tip, Marsha. I’m going to try it out. I assume it doesn’t require a connection to translate, or those roaming fees would be a deal breaker! I have my own iPhone fave apps on my blog, but am always on the lookout for fresh ones.

    • December 23, 2010 11:43 pm

      Yeah–it’s pretty neat although I’m not sure about roaming. Glad you have another fave app to add to your list. Happy travels!

  2. December 24, 2010 12:21 am

    Great question for a post, Marsha! I’m a translator and a language geek and am generally against machine translation, because I think it does make us lazy and allows us to stay in that “bubble of the familiar,” which defeats so much of the purpose of traveling and interacting with other cultures. You can see in the YouTube clip where the nuance of some of the translations gets lost and turns the text into a sort of baby-talk, and it’s a shame to miss out on the full meaning of anything.

    However…I think WordLens is awesome – a great idea, and a wonderful resource for travelers! It isn’t intended to let you read foreign literature (just try plugging Proust into Babelfish and see what happens – it’s not pretty), its purpose is to get you around with just a little bit less confusion – and keep you from swimming in shark-infested waters. For that, I think it’s perfect. And could serve as the start of an interesting back-and-forth between you and the locals: you write down a question, use WordLens so they can read it in their own language, they’d probably think it’s pretty cool and it might get you some basic language/pronunciation lessons in the local lingo, or let you teach a mini English lesson. For making communication and navigation a little easier and maybe serving as a conversation piece into the bargain, I think it’s a pretty cool idea.

    • December 24, 2010 7:28 am

      Great idea about using WordLens as a way to learn a new language and as a conversation piece to engage native speakers. Another linguist friend of mine also liked the app and suggested that he wouldn’t mind having one in case of emergency and I agree with him 100%. However, I’d hate to see travelers become completely dependent on it instead of using their intelligence and instinct. So glad you took some time to respond. I really value your response to this. : )

  3. December 26, 2010 6:25 am

    Not to leave a short and seemingly pithy comment, but I see where you’re coming from on the apps (what I will call) aptitude for laziness. I like pushing my boundaries when I travel, but being able to translate the language would be damn convenient. I think it WILL open doors, but it will also shut others that I will simply label “adventure.”

    • December 26, 2010 9:25 am

      Exactly! Travel should involve at least a little boundary pushing, just a little discomfort. Otherwise what the point? Your comment about the app shutting the door to some adventures is, in my opinion, spot on.

  4. Caitlin kelly permalink
    December 26, 2010 8:49 am

    Interesting question. I think anything that encourages travel beyond the US is a good idea, and I can see the utility especially if you’re ill or it’s some sort of emergency. I think people are adventurous or they’re not. I speak French and Spanish but am intimidated by German so might use it there; if it gets me to visit a new place, I’m for it.

    • December 26, 2010 11:34 am

      It’s definitely a plus if it at least gets people thinking about going somewhere they hadn’t before. I wouldn’t mind having it in countries where seafood is a big part of the diet and I need to know exactly what I’m eating (I’m allergic to shellfish). But one of the best parts of travel for me is the struggle in trying to find myself in a place where I’m not surrounded by the trappings of my life at home. I think WordLens diminishes that struggle somewhat.

  5. December 29, 2010 10:35 am

    Like everything the app should be used wisely. It’s certainly great in an emergency but your first priority should always be to learn at least a few words and phrases in a foreign language and, the alphabet. Then at least you can read road signs.

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