Google Translate is a free application for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch with a very practical purpose: it translates text and speech into foreign languages.

The road test: We spoke some common (and a few obscure) travel phrases into our iPad to see how well the app would translate our words into Spanish, French, German, Chinese and Arabic. Then, we fooled around with the playback feature to assess the sound quality and functionality of the app.

The highlights: The app seems to work well, but when speaking, peripheral noise needs to be minimal. If a user speaks slowly, Google Translate is generally accurate in logging what is said. Translations are comprehensive and provided in two formats: text and auditory playback. The app offers text translations in an impressive 50+ languages and spoken translations in a considerable 25 languages. Finally -- and we guess this is a good thing, although it loses some entertainment value - the voiceovers are relatively normal sounding. No dramatic interpretations. No Darth Vadar, Kermit the Frog or Fonzie. Think flight attendants: slow and precise. 

The speedbumps: In a few instances, the device timed out or took an extended amount of time to complete our translations. So again, we’ll stress the importance of limited background sound (which may or may not be feasible given your circumstances of use). Also, if you don’t know the language, it can be hard to verify the accuracy of translation. We independently confirmed that the French and Spanish translations were correct.

The bottom line: If the conditions are right, this is an absolutely usable app. It will even help you master a few phrases prior to your travels, which is always a great idea.