Free Chinese Character Recognition with Google Translate

The Google Translate Android app has been gradually getting better and better. In addition to straight-up translations it also includes a conversation mode, handwriting recognition, voice dictation, and most recently character recognition, or OCR. If you’re learning Chinese then you’ve most likely already heard of Hanping Chinese Camera and Pleco OCR, both provide very good text recognition implementations, but how does this free offering from Google stack up?

To access the OCR functionality in Google Translate first launch the app, then select the target language at the top right of the screen followed by pressing the camera button located at the bottom right. The bottom half of the screen will turn into a camera window. It’s not necessary to select the source language as this will be auto-detected, but if you’ll also be typing during your translating session then it couldn’t hurt.

Google OCR - Taking a Photo

Position the camera over some Chinese text then press the camera button at the bottom. The photo will be captured and after a few moments characters should become grouped together into words by a light grey background. To translate a word use your finger to highlight it, if it’s recognised then the translation will be displayed above the camera window. Press the arrow to the right of the translated word to view a more detailed definition along with the Pinyin.

Google OCR - Definition

The flaws for using this as a serious study tool become apparent almost immediately, most notably that the phonetics for the currently selected word aren’t displayed anywhere except the full dictionary entry which requires clicking out of OCR mode. After you move from OCR mode to the dictionary, there’s no way to get back to your already captured image and it’s lost forever. Of course you could just capture it again, but that’s hardly ideal if you want the Pinyin for more than a few words. Text recognition is also only available for horizontally aligned text, ruling out the use of this tool for a large portion of Chinese language books.

Regardless of any lacking features, there’s no arguing that for free this is a great tool. Even if you’ve already invested in Hanping Chinese Camera or Pleco OCR then it’s still worth having around. As it’s a Google app the text recognition engine is most likely being constantly updated (captured images are sent to Google for processing) which means it’ll keep getting better. Interestingly, while testing I did run into a few words that used slightly non-standard or modified fonts (usually on the covers of books) that Google Translate handled quickly but that took a lot of fine tuning in the other apps.

Google Translate is available for free from Google Play.

  • Ben

    Amazing! This was the stuff of fantasy merely 5 years ago

    • Yeah, when I first got to Taiwan I was using a Nokia 7610, the iPhone wasn’t out yet and the only choice was either a paper dictionary or a dedicated electric dictionary with stylus. Before I broke down an bought an electric dictionary I can remember spending 5 minutes or more looking up one word in the paper dictionary by stroke count. Painful memories haha.

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  • The handwriting input is really good as well, not just for Chinese. I just wish they’d bring back the old full-screen mode though.

  • NADIA

    do you have any suggestion for english-chinese dictionary using pin-yin to find the meaning of the word? I guess my friend is learning Chinese and she was asking if she wants to look up a word she heard yet didn’t learn it yet. Since she only know the sound of it and couldn’t recognize any character in the dictionary. Would there be a dictionary using pin-yin to search for word and definition?
    Sorry, it’s kinda a weird question.

    • Hi Nadia – just about any smartphone Chinese dictionary aimed at people learning Chinese will have this feature. Most of these are Chinese-to-English dictionaries but this is what you probably want anyway.

      Shameless plug: if you are using Android, you can try our very own Hanping Chinese Dictionary: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.embermitre.hanping.app.lite but really any app will do so give them all a try!

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  • alex

    What if i want to convert an image i have already taken? How can i choose it from my gallery?