Some years ago, in a restaurant in Shanghai, I saw a tourist who was looking at a waitress and making some rather funny movements with his fingers. He had formed an X with his two index fingers, and moved them backward and forward a few times. Apparently, he did not know how to use chopsticks, and was trying to explain to her that he wanted a knife and a fork. The waitress was quite obviously used to the sign language: She brought the cutlery without even the slightest hint of a smile. At which point others at his table nodded their heads up and down a few times and smiled broadly in a gesture of thanks.

Later in the evening, when my small group tried to explain to a cabbie to take us to a nightspot for some food and drinks, I am reasonably certain that our sign language would have appeared positively rude or even obscene to him. It took us a while and a few more amused cabbies, but in the end we made it to a nice part of town and had a good time.

If that fellow in the restaurant had been a smart traveller, he would have brought along his own knife and fork. And looking back, we should have carried a Mandarin phrase book. But getting lost in translation is one of the joys of travel.

I am talking about the pre-smartphone days when the iPhone was perhaps still on Apple’s drawing board and though BlackBerrys had been around, they weren’t yet available in India. These days there is a choice of apps you can download on your phone, press a few buttons and show the screen to the waitress. She’ll bring you dao cha (that’s Chinese for a knife and a fork) with a smile.

I am reminded of those amusing moments because of this new gizmo I played with recently. It’s a hand-held “language translator" called Lingo Voyager 4 and looks like a larger version of a BlackBerry. It belonged to a friend transiting through Delhi on his way to Vladivostok. He had bought it for $200 (Rs9,340).

The manual said it has the ability to translate 14 languages—including Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Japanese and Hebrew—and can speak 840,000 words and 46,000 frequently used phrases from around the globe. It also has a built-in New Oxford American Dictionary. A display shows you how to pronounce a word or a phrase; you can also play the line through its speaker.

It has a lot of useful phrases that you may need to find accommodation, meals or transportation in a foreign country, or in case of a sudden illness or injury. If you are in Venice and come down with fever, key in the word, and you’ll hear a word that sounds like “feebrey" (that’s Italian for fever) in a shrill human voice. I tried the same word in Russian and the result was a long sentence of eight-odd words in a rather stern, monotonous tone.

My friend had bought it because he didn’t want to take any chances. After we had played with the gadget for a few days, pressed many keys, scrolled down various screens and tried out how to ask for help in many languages, I was impressed by its ability to communicate at a basic level but he seemed to be in two minds whether he should carry it on his trip.

It’s a useful gadget for business as well as leisure travellers but, as I said, the romance of travel is also picking up a foreign language—such as learning the tonal refinement of Mandarin, where how you say “ma" can make the difference between addressing your mother and abusing someone.

On work or on holiday, I have carried travel guides but never used a phrase book and I have had a few embarrassing moments but never an unpleasant one.

I am quite sure if I revisit China, or go to any other part of the world where I do not understand the local language, I will download a few apps on my phone before I embark on my trip. There are dozens of useful ones, including the Lonely Planet Audio Phrasebook application (around $10 each) and the WorldNomads apps that you can download free. The vocabulary doesn’t seem to be as extensive as my friend’s gadget, but when I spoke with him in Vladivostok, he didn’t even talk about it. Maybe he had found a local interpreter.

Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.

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