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.
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.
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.