Google Translate Android app lets you translate text with your camera

The Google Translate app for Android (s goog) is taking on a new trick that should make it more useful for people, both at home and abroad. Users can now take a picture of certain foreign text and translate highlighted words. It’s reminiscent of Word Lens, another mobile translation app, but it doesn’t do the translation in real time using augmented reality. It’s actually more of an update from Google Goggles, which previously had the ability to translate scanned text from a mobile phone.

Users who update to Google Translate 2.5 will now have the ability to take a picture of text. Then when you run your finger over the text you want to have translated within the captured image, the app starts immediately translating the words. It doesn’t work with all of the 64 languages in Google Translate, but intially handles Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Portugese and Russian.

I tried the app out and it seemed to work well. It doesn’t have the magic qualities of Word Lens, which can translate words right on screen just by pointing the camera at certain text. And it needs to have an Internet connection to work, which can be expensive if you’re overseas and can’t find a Wi-Fi network. But it handles more languages and appears more accurate. Plus, it’s free compared to Word Lens, which charges for language packs. And compared to Google Goggles, it’s helpful in that you can highlight exactly which text you want translated after you take a picture. Users will need to have Android 2.3 or higher installed for the software to work.

It’s another sign of how smartphones are able to become instant translation tools out in the world. Windows Phone 7’s Mango (s msft) update can also scan foreign text and translate it through Bing. We don’t have a universal translator yet, but it’s slowly becoming more of a reality.