The Cartagena solution is not new, but it is often overlooked. As a sign language interpreter by profession, I decided to try non-verbal communication. “I buy and squawk like a hen,” she says, a request for a seasoning used to make chicken. Then eat pork. “Then he made a mixture of spices for all the items and painted a picture of a chicken, fish, pig, carrot and cow on each bag,” she recalls.
“Contact has to happen – and it will happen.”
Fortunately, there are easier ways to get your message across. There are a variety of translation apps and services that can help travelers overcome language barriers.
Translation applications. Google Translate, the most widely used translation app, automatically translates phrases into dozens of languages. “Google Translate can be a good resource if you don’t speak the destination language and need urgent information, such as ordering at a restaurant,” says Carolina Sánchez-Hervás, founder of CSH Translation, a translation services company. But she recommends using it with caution: the app may not capture nuances such as gender agreement, jokes, or metaphors. Google also offers an Interpreter mode that allows you to talk to your device to get a translation in near real time. But for most users, it depends on a fast internet connection, so if you are offline, it may not work.
Carla Bivens, who teaches business communications at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, also likes Microsoft Translator, a free app that offers translation into more than 100 languages and allows up to 100 participants. iTranslate can also provide more flexibility. “It supports gesture-based controls and can translate Chinese characters,” she says. But Biffins cautions against over-reliance on translation apps. There is no substitute for learning a few basic phrases and communicating face to face. “Be willing to try to talk to others,” she advises. “As you practice speaking, you’ll get better at it and make some great memories.”
Interpreter. Many applications can connect you with an interpreter. Alan Campbell, a former Foreign Service employee who teaches Spanish translation, loves Jeenie (iOS or Android), an app that charges $1 a minute for instant explanations. “It’s a fantastic app with a respected mission to support language accessibility and equality in other contexts besides travel,” he says. The app works through your camera, so the interpreter can also see the body language cues of the person you’re talking to, allowing for greater accuracy. Other apps, such as Stepes, ship with word but may offer more language options. Daily Translator can translate, help with pronunciation and, if necessary, connect you with an interpreter.
Translation cards. In cases where an accurate translation is necessary — to describe a medical condition or food allergy, for example — some travelers will buy cards or printouts to take on vacation. Companies like Equal Eats sell cards describing conditions including celiac disease and nut allergies ($7.99 for an instant download or $16.99 for a plastic card) in different languages. Equal Eats CEO Kyle Dane says translation software “is not accurate enough to convey life-threatening allergy information overseas.” The company uses professional translators, proofreaders and native speakers to ensure the most accurate translation. The information is also available as an app.
Travel insurance. If you have a travel insurance policy, you may be able to benefit from translation services. For example, the Allianz Travel Insurance helpline offers real-time services to its customers in several major languages, including French, German, and Italian. “Passengers who call in advance can request our assistance with arrangements in the language of their destination – anything from making hotel, restaurant or tour reservations to obtaining important information needed during their travels,” says Lashanta Sullivan, Director of Travel Assistance at Allianz. If you have a Medjet membership, which offers medical evacuation, you can also use the medical translation benefits to instill and translate foreign medical reports into English.
Of course, the best way to communicate is to learn the language. Although you may not have the time to become skilled, knowing a few words and phrases can come in handy. There is a large collection of applications that can help you learn another language. “Even a small effort goes a long way and is not only appreciated by locals, but also allows you to have a deeper connection to the country far from your smartphone,” says Francesca Wirth, Director of Sales for Rough Guides publisher.
But there is not always time for that. On a recent visit to Turkey, I could hardly get past the word hello. One evening, I found myself in a taxi with a driver who did not speak English. I stumbled across my phone for Google Translate and finally wrote down what I wanted to say. Then I pressed the button to turn it loudly. Nothing happened. So I paid him again. The Turkish translation was slowly introduced, which happens when you press the button twice, and everyone laughed.
In the end, methods such as the Cartagena method may still be the most effective. Kelly Price, a human resources manager from Kirkland, Washington, used it recently when she visited a town outside Izmir, on Turkey’s Aegean coast. I stopped at a restaurant where no one spoke English, and the menus were all in Turkish.
“It made chicken noises,” she says. “I grew up on a farm and can make a very realistic chicken. And we have chicken for dinner.”
Prospective travelers should take local and national public health guidance regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Health Travel Notice information can be found on the CDC’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s Travel Health Notice web page.