Translating and interpreting Mandarin: a piece of cake these days?

Will modern China travellers ever need to learn Mandarin? Well, as a language teacher who speaks five, I am quite biased, yet would still say “No, not really”. My family and I have solved quite complex problems here, without any Mandarin skills to speak of.

Baidu Translate is a phone app that I speak into, in English, and within two seconds the Mandarin appears in script and through the loudspeaker.

phone translation

Using just this interpreting app, I have retrieved my bank card that the cash point ate, restored water and gas supply, bought funky Chinese pears (the best in the world), and enjoyed discussing many topics with my neighbours, despite, no – because of, hilarious errors at every digital turn. The excitement of suddenly getting through to Chinese people who never bothered to learn English is fantastic. Nobody is safe anymore – communication cannot be avoided by anyone.

The reverse translation is also possible, and when I mix that up, surreal mishaps occur. Once, discussing the size of my fries order in McDonald’s, my app expected Chinese input but caught my spoken English, and then out came Li Zunquit stinky brother. I took a screenshot after I came round from pissing myself:


In light of of this, I would caution against conducting high-level nuclear negotiations this way, for now.Yet only 25 years ago, I giggled through Douglas Adams’ books with the concept of a translating „Babel fish” you put in your ear, which then guides you through any language in the galaxy, and nothing more than wonder and merriment filled my head. But today I can anticipate tiny earbuds connected to smartphones to automatically pick out the language spoken, translating it instantly: Adams’ idea will soon have been realised in its essence.

Baidu Translate and similar apps also allow capturing a picture or text; from menus, books, or facades, and they then superimpose the translated text onto the original image. This is simply magical, and will no doubt soon be possible in real time, superimposed through smart glasses for instance, so that I can walk around in Smøddårsfeien and forget that all the writing in front of me is in a language other than English. But for now, thankfully, guesswork and imagination cannot be left at home just yet.

Facade Translation

I feel privileged and pleasantly tickled that I am enjoying these marvels now, when they are fresh and still deliciously plagued by glitches. They keep the mystery of travelling alive.