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  • Writer's pictureAdam Gammons

Translation Tools 101


Have you ever used Google Translate and found that the translation wasn't quiiiiiite what you needed? You're not alone. While Google has created the literal stuff of dreams with this tool, it's not perfect just yet.

I entered the first phrase that came to mind and let Google translate it to French, I got these results:

Now, at first glance, this seems fine. But only if you don't speak French. The trouble with this translation is that it is only offered in the formal/plural form. There doesn't seem to be any option to select the informal/singular option.

Even this is kind of forgivable to be honest. Google translate is still magic to me, and 10-year-old me would have lost his little mind for a tool like this. My point here is that this tool isn't perfect and doesn't always produce the results you're looking for. It may not give you all the options available. There are several other acceptable ways to formulate this question, half of them using the formal vous and half using the informal tu.

One of the really cool features of Google Translate is that it can read lots of languages aloud to you so that you can hear what your translation sounds like. So, if you can get the system to kick out the right translation, you can listen to it! Neat and useful, but not always super nuanced. You can also translate whole paragraphs at a time.


1) Simple, user-friendly interface

2) Can usually be trusted to get the essential point across

3) You can hear your results

4) Translate lots of text at once


1) Doesn't always offer multiple translation options

2) Doesn't always offer the correct (or an acceptable) translation

3) There is no detailed list of expressions and phrases that related to or containing words in the translation

4) Even if you click "Improve this translation", the suggestions aren't always correct


Google Translate can definitely get you started. It's pretty and it's popular. But there are other tools that offer more detailed and nuanced descriptions and examples of lanugage features.

WordReference is, no doubt and hands down, my favorite tool for finding exactly the right word in French!

Let's pretend that I searched for "Do you know what time it is?" in Google Translate and then start to question the use of vous. Then I open WordReference, select English to French, and search "you". I get the following results:

I know, I know. It looks like a lot to take in just for the word "you", but a word so widely used needs some detailed explanation.

Every word is clickable and takes you to its own page. If you click on the very first "tu" there on the first row to the right, you'll be taken to a page showing the French/English translation in the same format. My favorite part of WordReference's output is that you get lots of examples that get really specific! The results for "you" in the screenshot above are just the first few. The page goes on and on to show "Supplemental Translation" and "Composed Forms" along with lots of links to discussion boards about a wide variety of expressions.

These discussion boards have saved me so, so, so many times. Back in grad school, I would write tons and tons of papers in French, and whenever I ran up against an odd or idiomatic expression, I could almost always find it on WordReference.

Not only does WordReference offer really detailed descriptions of nearly every term you you could think up, it offers these translations in tons of languages. The list includes Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Polish, Romanian, Czech, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic.

Obviously I can only really speak to the experience in French and Spanish, but those have never once failed me!

Comparing Google Translate with this tool, we can see that Google is more capable of translating large swaths of language at once whereas WordReference requires a bit more digging and can only really effectively be used to search for singular words and phrases at once. The important aspect of WordReference is in its profusion of real examples. I have used this tool more times than I could possible count, and I don't think I've ever found a translation that didn't come with a good example of that word used in a French or Spanish sentence.

Like Google, you can listen to your result, though not full sentences. But unlike google, you can also access conjugation information right at the top under the big bolded page title (the term that you just searched for) if the search was for a verb.


1) Very detailed translations!

2) Lots of discussions about expressions with native speakers available for search

3) Just as easy to use as Google

4) Offers conjugations for searched verbs


1) Piecemeal and not capable of translating large portions of language at once

2) The interface isn't quite as pretty as Google

3) Nothing else. There's nothing else wrong with it. Use it.


WordReference and Google Translate are fantastic tools to use alongside apps like Tandem. In the free version, Tandem doesn't offer unlimited use of its translation tool, so if you're learning language on a budget, just switch between Tandem and these two great translation apps whenever you hit that inevitable language wall that you can't quite seem to scale.

Used properly, they can help support you in crafting sentences you can feel confident about!

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