How to use translation apps in China

When I first arrived in Beijing, my lack of Chinese didn’t seem like too much of a problem.

Everything was new and big and exciting. It didn’t really matter if my jianbing order involved a lot of wildly gesturing at unrecognisable ingredients with no clue on what I would eventually end up with – it was all part of the adventure!

Three years in and my patience for that kind of ‘fun’ has long since dried up. I’ve also encountered a number of situations where accuracy and clarity are paramount, so the ability to translate both spoken and written word is essential.

Fortunately, in the first few days following my arrival in the middle country I was recommended a couple of apps that have since proven themselves lifesaving in such situations – and handy tools for learning the language also.


Forget any other Chinese-English dictionary, Pleco has just about everything you need.

What we love about Pleco is it allows for both freehand character input (which, if you know the stroke order, is surprisingly accurate) and typed input of words in both English and Chinese, hanzi and pinyin. The app provides definitions, sample usage, character breakdowns and (for the simpler ones) stroke order, so you can even teach yourself how to write.

We use it for looking up specific words we need – names of food items, objects, concepts. We wouldn’t rely on it as a full-on translation tool, but when you can’t remember the name of a vegetable, or need to double-check your understanding of a colleague’s WeChat message, it is irreplaceable.

Baidu Translate

China’s answer to Google might not have produced the best of search engines, but their translation app certainly does shine. Text, voice and camera translation with consistently accurate results across the board result in a great all-rounder, which you will likely find yourself heavily dependent on in the absence of a working VPN and Google translate.

The most useful feature in our eyes is image translation – particularly if you are trying to do something on a Chinese app and can’t copy/paste text directly. Just screenshot the area of confusion, click Baidu’s Camera translate option, then click the gallery option on the left to choose from previously saved images. You can even highlight the recognised text and copy/paste it to another app.

We use Baidu for primarily for image translation of menus, apps and documents. It’s also great for simple sentences when you need to get something done that you just don’t have the language for. We wouldn’t always recommend it for translating individual words – a dictionary app is better for this.

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