When I first came to China I basically wanted a point-and-shoot, do-it-all translator, but the options that were available to me at the time mostly fell flat or I didn’t know how to use them properly.
I had Google Translate and the free version of Pleco, but both of them I struggled to use at this point in time. Google services was/is crippled by connectivity issues in China and I couldn’t make much sense of Pleco’s live OCR feature due to its flashing cluttered interface.
Both the usefulness of currently available translation apps and my personal situation have now changed vastly.
Nowadays you have essentially two camps of translators for Chinese. You have the offline Chinese character readers and you have the online machine translators.
Character readers basically work by taking a picture of a block of text with your smartphone and then use optical character recognition (OCR) technology to decipher individual Chinese characters. In essence, they don’t translate sentences but instead translate individual characters, leaving it up to you to put together the Chinese characters to form meaning.
Machine translators are a different bag. These things are point-and-shoot convenience apps that will both translate characters individually and process entire chunks of text automatically. Google Translate is perhaps the most famous example, but unfortunately due to Google services being chronically unreliable in China without a VPN, we do not recommend depending on it.
In short: Character readers are good for learners of Chinese who have some basic speaking ability, and machine translators can either act as an aid for learners, or can also be used by a separate category of users: tourists and casual visitors.
Machine translators are great for giving you a rough idea about what you’re looking at, rather than interpreting precisely what it means. However, translations ought to be taken with a grain of salt as they can often distort meaning and miss things. Most options will require you to be online to provide reliable service.
In my earlier experiences with Baidu Translate, I tended to rely on it as a kind of standard copy+paste translator and before long abandoned it in favor of the more cleanly designed Bing Translate app.
Revisiting the app for the purposes of this review, I wanted to see if there was a popular app which replicated the cool feature that Google Translate has whereby you can literally point and shoot translate something without the need for manually assembling meaning. I’m pleased to report that Baidu certainly does this and it appears to work to great effect.
All you have to do is take a photo, highlight the passage you want translated, and voila! Baidu will give you a full translation.
As for Baidu’s standard copy+paste translation, I find it works as it should, perhaps equally or slightly less as well as Google or Bing.
Bing translate is well designed and is a fairly straightforward affair in China. Thanks to Microsoft’s close[r] relationship with the Chinese government, the service seems to work uninterrupted for me. However, I will say that it is not as useful as Baidu or Google Translate. Bing works great for its intended purpose of copy+paste style auto-translation, but it distinctly lacks a point-and-shoot (Camera OCR) translate feature, which means that in practice I rarely use it.
The app that started OCR for me.
Before Pleco arrived on Android, there was Hanping, and Hanping for all intents and purposes, offers very similar functionality to Pleco, but I would argue that Hanping’s point-and-shoot OCR goes that extra mile.
Hanping essentially offers two OCR solutions for your smartphone: Hanping Camera, a China noob point-and-shoot OCR scanner for translating things that can be seen with a camera, and Hanping Popup, a sentence fragment reader for interpreting Chinese characters on your phone.
I would have to say that “Hanping Camera” is currently the best of the point and shoot character translators that I’ve tried.
You fire it up, it simply auto-zooms and focuses on a line of Chinese text, then neatly color codes the OCR’d words according to tone, giving you an instant scroll of a whole sentence without manual intervention. Hanping Camera also has the option of loading up a pre-snapped or pre-screenshotted image allowing you to read things from your mobile screen indirectly.
Hanping Popup works by simply lining up a fish crosshair against some text to interpret characters, one at a time. My thoughts on Hanping Popup have been expressed more fully in an article I wrote on the matter here.
Pleco is probably the most widely known and loved of the Chinese dictionary apps.
Using OCR in Pleco for point-and-shoot, I find to be not quite as strong as the competition, however it more than makes up for this with its awesome new screen reader feature.
Pleco’s OCR can be used in three separate ways.
On the fly OCR allows you to point your phone at a piece of text and live-translate it. I have found this to be not so reliable in practice.
With the Pleco screen reader applet, you simply click a button and it will OCR your whole screen or a selection of your choosing. My preferred method.
Still image translation
Either snap a still image from within Pleco or load up an existing image on your smartphone. Importantly, this can be used in place of the screen reading feature on iOS devices where screen reading is not yet supported- simply screenshot what you want to translate and load up the image in Pleco.