Travellers who don't know the local language can now get extra help from their smartphone to read street signs and chat with the locals, via Google.

The updated Google Translate app for Android and iOS rolling out in the next few days includes two enhanced features, Google announced on its Translate blog today:

  • Word Lens, which instantly translates text such as street signs when you point your camera at it, overlaying the translation on the screen. The feature doesn't require an internet or data connection.
  • Conversation mode, which provides automatic voice translation for two people speaking different languages.

More limited versions of these features were previously available to Android but not iOS users. Voice translation was also available on desktop.

Android users previously had to take a photo to get text translated, and voice translation was less advanced. The new update makes conversations "flow faster and more naturally," wrote Barak Turovsky, product lead for Google Translate.

Word Lens instant translation is available for translation from English to and from French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, Google says. The older photo translation is available in 36 languages.

At least some features of Google Translate are supported in 80 languages.

Microsoft demonstrated its own instant voice translation tool, Skype Translator, last May. A limited preview is available to translate between Spanish and English.