OS X Needs a Built-in Translator

Living in a diverse world comes with consequences. It’s great to see people who are not stereotypical and actually go above and beyond what others consider normal behavior, but when it comes to languages, you can’t learn them all. It’s estimated that there are nearly 7000 different spoken languages in the world.

Since there are many perusers of the Internet who know only their native tongue, reading a bit of international writing on the Web can become tedious. People that often find themselves browsing foreign websites typically use Google Chrome for its integrated translation functionality. But why doesn’t OS X have that built-in?

OS X Supports Lots of Languages

Apple cares about international support, just not in a connective way.

Apple cares about international support, just not in a connective way.

If you look through your the Language tab of Language & Text in System Preferences, you’ll find around 140 options. In the Regions tab you’ll find proof that you can be anywhere in the world and use your Mac happily. Even the Input Sources tab shows how well Macs will hold up globally. There are all kinds of different options for nearly any language used in the world today, yet still there’s no way to translate them without a third-party app.

Integration, Starting with Dictionary

A small number of additional languages are supported in Dictionary.

A small number of additional languages are supported in Dictionary.

I’d like to see some integration with the current OS X Dictionary. It’s currently very simple, yet powerful. In the long run, though, it’s capable of so much more. There are only 12 languages in the current version of Dictionary and it doesn’t offer a connection between them. You can use the All tab to search through multiple languages, but if you can’t read French then how are you supposed to know what the definition means?

I use One World Dictionary to translate foreign words in Safari. Problem is, it’s not as simple as tapping a word with three fingers. And cool features cost.

Ascendo's One World Dictionary is the ideal solution to a bilingual dictionary in OS X.

Ascendo’s One World Dictionary is the ideal solution to a bilingual dictionary in OS X.

OS X should have a bilingual dictionary option available. There should be some way to connect your language with the one you want to translate to, rather than keeping them separate. Just imagine how much more useful the app would be to students and even teachers. Apple would be praised for such a wonderfully simple way to understand a different language. To the same degree, a person who hasn’t studied any foreign language can be introduced to one.

Third-Party Plugins for Dictionary are Available

A simplified Chinese to English dictionary.

A simplified Chinese to English dictionary.

There are currently some great bilingual dictionaries available for the Mac’s Dictionary app, but they’re a big harder to find than they should be. Apple’s old downloads website was the place you could find extra dictionaries, but now you’ll have to resort to 3rd party websites to find, say, an English to Chinese dictionary, or the Thai to English dictionary our editor uses. There’s one very good thing: if you have a 3rd party dictionary that integrates with Dictionary, it does integrate very nicely, showing the extra language definitions in Dictionary or with a three-finger tap.

What the company needs to do is add a way for users to find these third-party Dictionary plugins. The Mac App Store won’t work because of its sandboxing limitations and submission guidelines. Instead, there should be a dedicated page, just like with Safari extensions, that guides users to what they’re looking for. Right now the only way to find something is Google, and still some of the results are found on the extinct Apple Downloads page, which is of no use.

Complete Support Throughout the OS

Why can't translating something be this easy? Or even the whole page?

Why can’t translating something be this easy? Or even the whole page?

The overall goal for a translation service in OS X would be universal application for the entire operating system. It should be something that’s available on the right-click menu for all text. Apple could even take it a step further and pull text from an image — using technology similar to that of Google’s in Goggles — to translate it for you. This could be something available on mobile devices as well with synchronization between the platforms and the ability to add favorite words.

Many Possibilities with A Limitation

So much can be done with a simple translator in OS X. The problem is that Apple doesn’t currently possess a service like Google Translate. Language support is growing with every release of the operating system, but the company would need to build a database in order to provide live translation (and hopefully — someday — and offline mode). With all its money, Apple could acquire an app like the aforementioned One World Dictionary and turn it into something great. Then again, it could nearly start from scratch like it did with Maps — let’s hope not.

Translation doesn’t seem like something on its main roadmap right now, but who knows: Apple may just think that further connecting the world is a good thing.

There’s Always Alfred

When in doubt, use Alfred, right? If you’ve got version 2 or later of the utility, grab the great little Google Translate extension for it off GitHub. It will simply translate the text you’ve selected to a language you specify (during the setup process) and then copy it to your clipboard. Not the most useful in all situations, but it’s better than nothing.

Ok: So What do you think?

What do you think of the idea of translation built-into OS X, and if you like it, how do you envision it being implemented?

Dictionary icon by Susumu Yoshida


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  • Sigilist

    Very interesting speculative article, Jacob. Unfortunately I don’t have any notions other that to emphasis the ability to select and right-click a select term, phrase, or sentence and be offered a “translate” option with a “source” and “destination” language list.

  • Andy

    Like you said, Chrome’s got it. For many the primary tool to come upon text in a foreign tongue. Also, the great thing about any OS is that you can get lots of other options. The Mac easily has the best third-party apps available (in terms of UI design and functionality). I’m not a native English speaker. I learned the language on my own using a dictionary about two decades ago. I can see why something that’s built in would be useful. But I guess they have other priorities.

  • JD

    The “One World Dictionary”-app you mentioned have only one-star ratings in the MAS and one 0,5-start rating on MacUpdate. Is it really your ideal solution to a bilingual dictionary in OS X?

    I love the build-in Mac OS X dictionary actually, and use the dashboard widget or desktop-app (or keyboard shortcut “ctrl + cmd + d”) with 3rd party dictionaries daily.
    It works system-wide and far better than any 3rd party app I tried. – And I think “only” 12 preinstalled languages are quite enough for a dictionary. ;-)

    I don’t miss a build-in translator either, as the additional (bilingual-) language-packs work great for me. (but I don’t have to read websites in more than 4 languages, tho)

    Interesting article, thanks Jacob.

    • http://www.thepapermail.com Jacob Penderworth

      It’s actually a starting point, not really the “ideal solution”.

  • Jean-marie

    Interesting article. but if I may, I noticedd one little mistake.
    “Since most people know only their native tongue” is not true. Actually most human biengs on the planet speak at least two languages, natively.
    Most people in Africa speak their mother tongue plus another one at school ( french, english, arabic, …) Same in Asia (in India all the kids learn to speak english fluently at school and english is an official language of the country). Even in the USA more and more people are bilingual, spanish and english. In Spain, people speak their regional native language (catalan, vasco,…) and learn spanish (castellano) at school. Same (on a smaller scale) in France (breton, alsacian, catalan, corsican, vasco, flemish, etc…) or Italy (Napolitan, sicilian,…)
    So statistically, most people on the planet speak more than one language fluently. Monolingual is actually the case of a minority.
    I’m french but I often have to write emails in other languages I speak (more or less fluently). I’m very happy that the auto correction in OSX is able to detect which language I write and according to the context always proposes the right spelling.
    Unfortunatly, iOS doesn’t have that ability and only corrects in the language you set the system in. ( I’m writing right now on my iPad and apologize for all the mis-spellings :) )

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Very true. If anything, the US is one of the few places where it’s not the by-and-large norm to speak two or more languages.

    • JD

      That’s so true Jean-Marie, and a good point, actually!

      Everybody I know and met around the world speaks at least two languages fluently – except some people I met in the US!

      The detection of the currently used language in the OS X auto correction is a great feature indeed!

    • http://www.thepapermail.com Jacob Penderworth

      You’re correct. I just stereotyped everything to being like the U.S., because I don’t have much experience outside the country. Good point indeed. I’ve amended the article to reflect this information.

  • Anon

    Enable it to translate whole web pages too. Something like the Safari extension which uses Google Translate.

  • Cyrus

    And run a track record of inaccurate translations. If anyone actually speaks a language other than English, you will know that Google Translate has its own problems translating phrases with millions of books and software tweaks.

    If OS X just enabled it with the same quality as Google Translate, it would be bad on its PR.

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