Translation, Apps, Comics, oh la la…

I’m learning French (so that I’ll be able to read French comics, as one does). I started absolutely from scratch (no high school French or nuttin), and after about half a year, I’m at that point where I can sort of kinda actually read some French comics. Sort of. If they’re for children.

Of course, even if I can basically parse a French sentence, I still have a minuscule vocabulary. I don’t want to use a dictionary or do a lot of typing, because I want to read comics, not like “work” at “learning” or something obnoxious like that. The only way to keep myself motivated to keep reading is if it’s fun.

So it’d be great if there were some kind of magical device I could wave in front of the offending word and, presto, it’d tell me what that word meant. Sounds like science fiction, right?

But I haven’t come to praise and say “how far technology has come today, eh, eh?”, but instead to bitch about how things aren’t perfect.

So here’s my situation: I’m sitting here, reading Modeste et Pompon (a French series from the 50s by Franquin), and I see something I don’t understand. So I whip out my Iphone with Google Translate and hold it up to the difficult panel:

But but… it’s not able to focus? Yes, it’s a well known bug in Google Translate: On Iphone 14 and 15, it can’t use the macro camera…

… so to be able to focus, I have to hold the phone waaaay off the page…

… but at least then it’ll do pretty good OCR. But I’ve got an Ipad Mini, and Google Translate doesn’t have that bug there:

Now, the Mini isn’t as convenient to hold, but that’s… Hang on, what’s with that translation? “Et pourquis pas, garnement?” The last word was what I was wondering about, and Google Translate says that it’s “you bitch”? In a 50s comic for children?

Well, Google Translate has always been astoundingly bad at idioms — it’s always been risibly literal. That was amusing 15 years ago, but it’s basically never gotten any better at that stuff, even with the LLM revolution happening over the past few years. Somebody on the Yellow Site speculated (well, since half the people on that site seem to work for Google, it was probably not speculation) that the head of Google Translate is so set on not ditching the work they’ve done on translation for decades for the shiny new LLM toy that there’s been no progress in that direction. Or any progress at all — asking Google Translate to translate a French sentence still often yield English text that makes no sense at all.

So that brings me to the point of this blog post: Does anybody know of an app that fits my use case? That is, that allows me to just sit here in my chair and read comics, and when I wonder about a word, I can wave my phone around and it’ll tell me? I don’t want to be typing, because that’s too awkward and takes too much time.

I’ve tried several apps now, and the one that comes closest is Deep L. Which from the name sounds like it has something to do with AI. It’s good at doing the OCR, it uses the macro camera on Iphone 15 fine, and it’s faster than Google Translate at doing the translation (which is very important — I want to be reading comics, not waiting for translations), and most important of all: It’s much better than Google Translate at actually translating. It turns out that the sentence in question really meant “And why not, you rascal?” which makes more sense, and sounds idiomatic.

If Deep L is so perfect, what’s the problem? This is the problem: I’m guessing they didn’t have comics reading as the (ahem) primary use case, so it’s just really bad at actually determining what it’s supposed to translate. It’ll often randomly fixate on a single line or two, and it’s impossible to get it to change its mind.

So — does anybody know of a better app? The “live view” bit is essential. There’s several apps that allow you to snap a pic and then translate that, but it takes several button presses and a long time, so it’s just not convenient.

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