Russia 2018: the Google Translate World Cup

Translation apps have united both supporters and locals at this summer’s tournament

On a warm, sticky morning in Kazan, Russia, a couple of weeks ago, a British journalist decided to brave the heat and go for a run. His apartment for the duration of the World Cup overlooked the city's state-of-the-art stadium, so he decided to do a couple of laps.

By the time he rounded the arena for the second time, he had been reduced to walking, his face pink and his T-shirt soaked in sweat. Two police officers at a security checkpoint eyed him suspiciously. They had a brief, whispered conversation before moving to intercept him.

Worried he was about to be asked for his papers and speaking little Russian, he readied himself to explain that he had left his passport at home and would be happy to retrieve it. Before he could speak, one of the officers uttered a short sentence into his cellphone. He held it toward the journalist, and an electronic voice asked, in English, “Do you require medical assistance?”

This was always supposed to be a World Cup indelibly marked by technology. Fifa’s decision to appoint a team of video assistant referees to review controversial incidents during matches was hailed as soccer’s next great leap forward, the moment it would join almost every other sport, including cricket and the NFL, in the 21st century.


The last few weeks in Russia, however, have highlighted a much more significant technological shift, a real-world innovation that has far-reaching ramifications for all of us. The defining image of this World Cup is fans from all over the planet, hosts and visitors alike, holding their cellphones out to each other to conduct conversations in languages they have never learned and would never claim to speak. This has been the Google Translate World Cup.

Across Russia for the last month, fans (and journalists) have used translation apps for everything: asking for directions, chatting with taxi drivers, getting slightly nerve-racking haircuts, checking into hotels, making friends, even flirting. The app’s camera function — which can scan and translate text — has allowed visiting fans to decode menus, decipher signs and read the names of subway stations, even if the Cyrillic alphabet remains a mystery to them.

“It really helps,” said Rodrigo Ferreira, a Brazilian fan from Salvador who has been in Russia, with his brother Arthur, for almost two weeks. “It’s good for everything. We try to speak in English, too, but it’s been useful in bars, in restaurants, for meeting women.”

That does not come as a surprise to Julie Cattiau, a product manager at Google Translate. “Brazil is our biggest market, but Russia would be in the top few,” she said.

The company was expecting an increase in use during the World Cup — it experienced something similar during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — but the “surge” has been impressive: the amount of translation on the mobile app has been double what it might ordinarily be, Ms Cattiau said.

Mauricio and Eduardo Contró, brothers from Monterrey, Mexico, in Moscow to see the semifinals and final, have found that Russians, in particular, reach for their phones to communicate with foreigners.

“We needed to charge our phones, so we went into a cafe and asked for power,” Mauricio, 27, said. “Before we had finished talking, they had their phone out, opened Translate, and asked us to speak into it.”

Given that Google’s app has some 500 million users and translates some 143 billion words a day, into and out of dozens and languages, the increase is startling. It is not hard to see why.

“Not many people speak Russian, and it can be quite intimidating,” said Hedi Salem, 31, a France fan from Marseille.

“In some of the smaller cities — not so much in Moscow and St. Petersburg — fewer people speak English. We have picked up a little bit of Russian, and we try to point or mime first, but it makes it much easier. It is amazing to see, people being able to talk without speaking each other’s language.”

Indeed, over this last month or so, it has been possible to glimpse the future of how we travel: a world in which language is no longer a prerequisite for understanding.

“For younger travelers especially, the days of printed phrase and point-it books are over,” said Joss Moorkens, an assistant professor at the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University. “That is significant: As people become more familiar with mobile translation tools, they are more likely to be willing to engage with visitors despite the lack of a common language.”

That, certainly, is the Google vision of what its app can do. Ms. Cattiau said the company’s “ambition and vision is breaking language barriers for people in many different ways,” and in many different contexts, not simply tourism. Some 95 percent of Google Translate users are outside the United States, often in multilingual countries such as India and Indonesia.

That remains some distance off. “It is a continuous process to get as close to human-quality translation as possible,” Ms. Cattiau said. Her team focuses not just on making sure the app is as accurate as it can be, but also on improving its ease of use. “We want people to be able to talk as naturally and seamlessly as possible,” she said.

At the moment, that has led to a conversation function — enabling two people to exchange sentences on one platform — but may, in the future, be driven by devices like headsets or earbuds, reducing the need to break the flow of a conversation by passing a phone back and forth.

For the time being, Dr. Moorkens said, translation apps in general are best used “in informal, low-risk situations, where errors can hopefully be laughed off.” The ultimate standard, he said, would be met when they can be used in a “doctor-patient scenario.”

As the programs improve, though, they will likely become more widespread, more familiar. That will, inevitably, make travel easier, but it also may have an effect on what we learn. It could, for example, reduce the need to learn languages, though Ms. Cattiau was quick to point out that is not a consequence Google intends, or encourages.

Dr. Moorkens said learning a language provides control. “When a machine speaks for you, how do you know that the message is being conveyed accurately, if you have no knowledge of the target language?” he asked rhetorically.

Then there is how we speak. The more we rely on translation apps when abroad, Dr. Moorkens suggested, the more we might be “trained” by those apps to speak in such a way to ensure the most accurate translation. “People will probably end up trained to speak in a restricted or unnatural way in order to achieve the best result,” he said. The logical extension of that is that it may change how we use our native languages.

In Russia, there has been no time to worry about those theoretical quandaries. Instead, as Dr. Moorkens said, “when the alternative is no communication at all,” even imperfect translation apps have been “far preferable.” They have helped to bring fans and their hosts together; to get visitors around a vast, unfamiliar country; to make every day a little easier; and to help people find something to say, and a way to say it. Even if that is just, “Do you require medical assistance?”