Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

End users aren't your enemy! Kolide gets users to fix their own device compliance problems–and unsecure devices can't log in. Click here to learn how.

By Jason Snell

Wish List: Messages in-app translation

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

I don’t understand how we’ve gone all this time, including through a period where Apple was heavily pushing a Messages App Store, without being able to easily translate texts in Messages.

iTranslate’s keyboard will do the trick—if both sides use it.

On services like Facebook, and in apps like Twitterrific, there are inline translation tools. With a tap or two, you can read a comment left by someone in a different language. Messages is a tool built for communication, yet it comes up short in this key area.

Of course there are workarounds. You can copy text out of Messages and paste it into a translation app or website. Then write your response, translate it back, copy, and paste. But that’s an awful lot of friction for something so basic.

Here’s how this should work: Messages should have an on-device language detection system that figures out if an incoming message might not be in your default language(s). When that happens, the interface would change in some way to allow you to tap to translate what was sent into your default language.

Yes, I get that there are some privacy implications here. That translation probably will have to be sent across the internet to a server that’s capable of performing that level of translation. I’d argue that these implications are overblown, though. Apple could certainly build a translation engine that is made with privacy in mind. And while there’s a potential issue of consent—you’re transferring someone else’s words into the cloud—they did send those words to you and intended for them to be understood by you.

Of course, Apple should offer the reverse as well—offering to translate your responses back into that language. I found the iTranslate keyboard, a keyboard add-on that does this—but translation frequently needs to be in both directions. And it’s a bit much to get someone to install a third-party keyboard just so they can respond to you in your chosen language.

I’m all for disclosure here. Let the message go out with both what you typed and the translation. Let Apple flag translated messages so that the sender can see that you’ve translated it.

But this should be easier. Seamless, really. What more can we ask of our communication tools than that they help us communicate better? And to do it as smoothly as possible.

If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.

Search Six Colors