There are several apps on the market which claim to be able to read signs or other written versions of various languages. Why unless you understand how a language works, no app can ever replace learning a language from scratch, or just a good dictionary or phrase book.
For a start, there are just too many situations where a word has several translations. Did you know that “set” in English has 464 meanings in the Oxford English dictionary, the use of which depends on the context? And “run” has 396? You can’t just pick one, even if it comes up as a likely translation a third of the time because it will completely change what you are trying to understand.
There may be some cases where you can indeed “get the gist”, but if you need to depend on the result you may need one hell of a good imagination, especially when the word order is totally off and basic words may be misused or too literal.
There are also issues around fonts with many of the available apps. Some don’t work with unusual fonts or can’t handle damages to particular letters. Others struggle with backgrounds that aren’t plain. And at a more basic level, some of the apps rely on a pretty limited dictionary
Our verdict? A few of the apps could do OK with some signs, especially if the dictionary database has been specifically designed for signs, but we wouldn’t recommend using them for much else. For menus, newspaper articles and the like we would recommend an old school real dictionary or phrasebook for when you don’t have a clue what it’s trying to tell you.
For business translation from the written word? Just forget it! Its not what its meant for and it can’t cope with it. Instead search out a reputable workplace translator (like the good folks at www.workplacetranslation.com) who has experience in the language and vocabulary as well as the nuances or colloquialisms which go hand in hand with translations.