How Do U Say…

Lost in Google&’s translation


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Embarrassed at how my Spanish had deteriorated over the years, I recently decided to download a few translator apps for iPad and iPod Touch before a trip to Spain. I browsed around the App Store, downloading English-Spanish editions of Google Translate, SpeechTrans and Jibbigo, three of the most popular apps.


I briefly considered iLingual, the one where you take a photo of your mouth and then hold the iPhone or iPod Touch up to your face while the screen animates your lips in the foreign language. Thankfully, for my dignity’s sake, I couldn’t find iLingual for Spanish — only French, German, and Arabic.

Eating breakfast at my kitchen table a few days before departure, I gave Jibbigo — the speech-to-speech translator that seemed the most user-friendly on the iPad — a test spin.

“I’m eating French toast,” I said slowly, trying to be clear.

“I need in French toast,” is what Jibbigo transcribed on its screen, which then spoke in a sultry female voice: “Necesito frances en tostada.”

I shushed my kids, who were watching SpongeBob, and turned down the TV — I’d read that background noise really threw speech-to-speech translators off. Once it was silent, I again pushed the red “record” button on the screen. “I am eating French toast,” I said, even more slowly and with as much enunciation as I could muster.

“All right and even French toast,” Jibbigo transcribed on its screen. “Está bien incluso y pan tostado frances,” said Sultry Voice.

“Noooo!” Now my kids began laughing at me and Jibbigo.

One of my sons grabbed the iPad. “Mom, are you cutting pears in the kitchen?” he said through the app to his mother, who was indeed cutting pears in the kitchen. “Are you hiding Harrods in the kitchen?” wrote Jibbigo, which Sultry Voice dutifully said in a bizarre game of mistranslation-down-the-lane.

By then, my kids were hysterical. I grabbed the iPad back, pressed the red button and shouted, “Go get dressed and ready for school!”

“Do you just ready for school?” translated Jibbigo. “Solo la lista para la escuela?” said the voice.


Needless to say, I was not particularly optimistic about the utility of a speech-to-speech translator during my journeys through the wine regions of Ribera del Duero and Toro. But I was determined to give it a try.

My first chance to use the app — once I’d gotten off the plane and through customs with a mere “Buenos dias” — was at the rental car counter. As I approached it, I spoke slowly to Jibbigo. “I have reserved a rental car for Mr. Wilson,” I said.

“I have reserved a rental car for Mr. Wilson,” transcribed Jibbigo. “He reservado un coche de alquiler para el Senor Wilson,” purred the sultry voice.

OK! I thought. Here we go! Maybe I’d misjudged Jibbigo. Maybe this was all going to work out fine! Reaching the counter, I hit play.

“Yeah, we have that reservation,” said the young woman behind the counter. In English. She raised an eyebrow at me. “And no worries, sir. I speak English at a high level.”

In fact, in most interactions with tourist-service people — hotel clerks, taxi drivers, cashiers — a speech-to-speech translator was sort of unnecessary. Basic, polite high-school Spanish worked just fine. Jibbigo usually just complicated matters.

In a crowded, noisy cafe I asked Jibbigo, “May I have a cafe con leche?” and Jibbigo responded with “May I have a tactical mentioned?” To which Sultry Voice said, “Puede darme un tactical mencionado?” Of course, I’d accidentally thrown off Jibbigo by not saying “coffee with milk.”

So I simply said, “Cafe con leche, por favor,” to the guy behind the counter — and it worked out fine.

At one point, driving through a toll plaza, I figured I’d ask the toll-taker whether I was going the right way. I pulled out the iPad and said, “Is this the right road for Valladolid?” Jibbigo transcribed, “Is this the right road for liability?” and Sultry Voice said, “Es este el camino correcto para el obligatorio?

The toll-taker looked at me like I was nuts. So instead, I did what many Americans do in a foreign country — I pointed wildly ahead and said, loudly, “Valladolid!?”

Si, si. Claro,” the toll-taker said.

Again, I knew I’d complicated matters by saying the name of the city rather than just “Is this the correct road?” But honestly, it’s not easy to remember Jibbigo’s limitations when you’re holding up a line of traffic.

This is not to say that all my interactions with translation apps were unsuccessful. In a tapas bar in Leon, I used Google Translate to help with a nice, informative conversation with the bartender about the Prieto Picudo wines of the region. The bar was so noisy — with Barcelona’s league-title-clinching game blaring on the TV — that Jibbigo or SpeechTrans would have been useless.

With Google Translate, I kept surreptitiously tapping my questions and conversation cues into the iPod Touch as the guy poured another customer’s drink. It simply looked as if I was perhaps texting friends at another bar. When the barman returned, I had my queries all mapped out in my head. (Of course, receiving the answers was another thing, which involved gestures and mishmash Spanglish, but at least Google Translate had gotten us halfway there.)

I did this in a couple of other situations, too, and what I realized is that because I already have some competency in Italian, I often knew more Spanish words than I thought. The translation apps helped me fill in the blanks and formulate more coherent sentences. Still, I’m not sure how much they’d help a complete beginner with only “Sesame Street” Spanish. All the apps work best if you already have a tiny bit of knowledge of, say, some Romance language.

For me, there was one situation, a casual dinner-party scenario, where Jibbigo was relatively useful.

I was drinking wine in an ancient wine cellar near Toro, Spain, with a young organic winemaker named Maria. She makes a lovely Toro wine called Volvoreta, which means “butterfly” (and which Jibbigo translated as “Buddha actor”).

We sat at a stone table with her father and some family friends, few of whom spoke English. Maria spoke English pretty well and translated, but occasionally we got bogged down by a phrase or a concept.

For instance, they talked for 10 minutes about “AYN-stain,” and I failed to realize that they meant Albert Einstein until someone typed his name into the translator app on my iPad. At one point, we got stuck on the word “musa.” Maria is charming and attractive in a Dionysian earth-goddess sort of way, and someone at the table was suggesting that she was a “musa” to wine writers. Jibbigo clarified that they were suggesting that Maria was a muse.

Maria pointed to a review of her wine in an American wine magazine. After all the usual descriptors of fruits and aromas and mouthfeel, the critic had referred to her wine as “classy.”

“Classy?” she asked. “Tell me what this word means, classy.”

Wine is nearly impossible to explain in your native tongue, let alone one you’re not proficient in. “Well,” I said, fumbling around in my native language, “classy is kind of a difficult word to translate. There are several different meanings. You sort of have to know who’s using it.”

Classy is slightly old-fashioned, and these days can be literal or ironic and mean anything from “elegant” or “stylish” to Ron Burgundy’s sign-off in Anchorman (“Stay classy, San Diego”) to the kind of snarky thing you say to a friend who, say, takes a swig straight from the wine bottle. Wine critics aren’t generally known as ironists, but they still are fairly precise in their adjectives — so the choice of “classy” instead of “elegant” or “stylish” meant something.

As I tried to explain the nuance to Maria, one of the friends, slightly impatient, said, “Elegante. It means elegante.”

“Well, sort of,” I said.

“Try your iPad,” Maria said.

“Classy,” I said into Jibbigo.

Elegante,” said Sultry Voice.

Everyone had a nice little chuckle at the silly American with the iPad who was trying to complicate everything. Ah, Jibbigo… • 13 June 2011


Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).