Language Hacks

This is a participatory post. I am hoping to collect suggestions from readers about ways in which they are using technology to cope with foreign languages. The query is intended in the broadest sense, ranging over applications in vacation travel, international conferences, reading secondary literature, working with primary texts in Latin, and so on.

Here’s an example of what I have in mind. You’ll all know about Google Translate. But did you know that, from the web page, you can upload a document and quickly get it translated? (Alas, it does not seem to work with scanned pdfs.) Well, no doubt many of you did know about this. So how about some other examples of this sort of thing?

Since I’m hoping this query will be of interest to others in the community, please respond by leaving a reply to this post (below), rather than by emailing me.


11 comments on “Language Hacks

  1. Paula Pico Estrada says:

    Hi! When reading secondary literature, I use Google Translate for foreign languages I don’t know.

    First I scan books or articles in PDF with Google Docs’ OCR, which is almost perfect. As Robert says, it doesn’t work well with PDFs. Since I use Adobe Acrobat Pro, I usually export the PDFs to jpg (each page turns into an image), then I upload the images, and last I open them one by one by using the right button on the mouse.

    When doing so, the option to open the image with Google Docs appears. You click on it and in seconds your image will be translated to text. It does not work if you open the image directly with a double click, always go to the right button on the mouse first.

    Then you copy and paste the text into Google Translate.

    For Latin, this in an excellent tool:

    Thank you, Robert, for having opened this possibility of exchanging language hacks! (I’m from Argentina and we met in 2020 via a Zoom meeting organized by Prof. Valeria Buffon. You gave a talk to our students.)

    • Paula Pico Estrada says:

      Sorry, a P.S.: I upload the images to Google Drive, then I click on the using the right button, etc.

    • Jeremy says:

      This is great advice!
      But you don’t even have to convert the pdfs to jpegs (especially if you don’t have access to Adobe Acrobat Pro). I usually take a screenshot of the pdf and use that 👍

      • Paula says:

        Of course! Thank you, Jeremy. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t thought of it 😌

  2. The single best tool for learning Greek is the Eton College Greek Project’s set of testers, especially the Greek Verb Tester. These are the ultimate self-quizzes, where one can slowly add bits of morphology to be mastered. There is also a vocabulary tester which is very useful, even if you are not using the lists that it is keyed to; the reason is just that you can select the words you want to learn or you can choose a kind, like prepositions.

  3. Interlinear Translations of Greek and Latin

    David Armstrong, professor of Classics at UT Austin, told me that most people don’t know about the old interlinear translations and how useful they can really be. So, let me say a word about them and provide a link to a library of them.

    These texts take the original Latin or Greek text of a classic, like Vergil’s Aenedi, and they rearrange the words into English word order and then provide a literal translation right below each word (generally). They were designed to teach students Latin and Greek by means of the original texts themselves. The method is that you study the rearranged version to master the meaning, syntax, and vocabulary intuitively; and then, the real key, you go to the original text in its original word order and study it. Most of us already know these languages; but these texts are still useful at helping students go from parsing a sentence and spending a lot of time puzzling over it to actually reading large passages of texts with some facility. The hope is that students will learn more and enjoy their experience more by direct contact with original authors.

    Here is a link to a collection of all of them (out of copyright):

  4. Jeremy says:

    Hi! My field is Japanese intellectual history, and I use an OCR app called Ichitaro Pad (一太郎Pad). If you take a photo of a text either through the app or use a photo already on your phone, it will convert the text from the photo into a digital format, where you can edit it, copy and paste and do whatever you want with it. It’s VERY accurate for Japanese, Korean, English and Russian texts. I haven’t tried it with other languages though, so I don’t know how accurate it would be for something like Arabic, but I reckon it would work great for most European languages. I use the Android app version I downloaded from the Japanese Google Play store, the only thing is I don’t know if it’s available on Play stores outside of Japan.
    Hope that helps!

  5. Michael+Gorman says:

    Whitaker’s Words (e.g. is a quick-and-dirty way to get a Latin word translated, and also to get it parsed. is a quick-to-use tool for German to English and vice versa. It helps you with phrases as well as individual words.

    Both of these things can get you into trouble, of course, but they’re OK as long as you know when to use them and when you need to look things up in the proper old-fashioned way.

  6. Much better than google translate, we now have
    A private anecdote: at a recent conference in Montreal on a forgotten eighteenth century French philosopher (Claude Buffier), we realized that deepl was doing a great job translating eighteenth century French – to a certain way better than what non-native but philosophically-ware translators could do, with the exception, of course, of technical terms of the philosophical tradition. Deepl is certainly the future.

  7. marysirridge says:

    I do use Whittaker’s Words, which will parse whole phrases word by word, and is likely to miss idiomatic constructions. For a dictionary and parsing of individual words, I prefer the SPQR app, which will also supply dates for classical authors and some historical information

  8. marysirridge says:

    Also, TLG online (Thesaurus Linguae Grecae) is very useful. It covers a lot of ancient works, will provide Greek text, multiple dictionary entries for most words, and will parse word by word. It’s $150 per year, though, if your institution does not have a subscription and you don’t have a departmental source to pay for it.

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