Home Tech A pocket-sized translator for when travel is back on the table

A pocket-sized translator for when travel is back on the table
A pocket-sized translator for when travel is back on the table avatar

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Turning your smartphone into a universal translator, TimeKettle's latest multilingual gadget ensures you're never lost for words.

Sadly, the closest most Australians will come to jetsetting right now is ordering exotic takeaway while thumbing through old copies of Lonely Planet. Travel might be off the menu, but the $140 TimeKettle Zero offers a taste of how tech can come to your aid.

The Zero's microphones do a much better job than those inside your phone.

The translator is a tiny 4-way microphone which comes in a choice of iOS Lightning or Android USB-C models for plugging into your smartphone. TimeKettle's translation app handles 40 languages, covering roughly 90 per cent of the world's population, so it shouldn't leave you lost in translation unless you really get off the beaten track.

It supports offline translation to save on roaming data, as long as you download the language packs beforehand, but initially offline mode is limited to a handful of languages; here the free Google Translate app has the upper hand.

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For the best results, face the other person with your phone held at chest height. Alternatively, sit opposite each other with the phone on the table. Either way, you both need to talk down at the microphone on a 30-degree angle.

Between my wife and kids' Japanese lessons, and my smattering of schoolyard Italian, we gave the Zero translator a good workout. Translations are surprisingly accurate but there's a reasonably narrow sweet spot for the microphone, beyond which the results become more garbled.

For best results there's a specific sweet spot you'll need to hold your phone in.

For best results there's a specific sweet spot you'll need to hold your phone in.

Once you choose your two languages, the app auto-detects who is speaking, but sometimes you get better results if you disable this and let each person tap their side of the screen before speaking. Aussies should take note that TimeKettle's app is squeamish when it comes to swearing, so you can't get too colourful with your language.

Thanks to the 4-way microphone's noise cancellation, the TimeKettle app does a better job than Google Translate of identifying the two voices when other people are speaking nearby.

Everything you say is dictated on your side of the screen. Once you pause, the translation is spoken aloud and displayed upside-down so the other person can read it, another benefit compared to Google Translate which shows everything right-way up.

The TimeKettle app also offers 2-way interview and 4-way conference modes, which record conversations and translate them on the screen, but it’s clunky at times and I’m not sure I’d trust it enough to handle delicate business negotiations.

If you’re sick of playing charades when in need of directions to the train station, TimeKettle’s Zero translator might be the travel companion you’ve been looking for.

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Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian technology journalist and co-host of weekly podcast Vertical Hold: Behind The Tech News.

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