1) Pleco (iOS, Android)
This is the #1 go-to app for translating basic words and phrases. You can’t plug in a whole sentence, but if you need to know how to say “restaurant” (a word you’ll need to know when you use Baidu maps to find somewhere to eat), Pleco has your back. However, if you do need a sentence translated, you can plug it in and Pleco will show you every translation for each linguistic unit. You can try to piece the meaning together- something you’ll find yourself doing a lot on the mainland.
This free dictionary is actually two-in-one, containing more than 178,000 entries and over 20,000 sentences. Pinyin is featured throughout, which helps learners understand the pronunciation and learn the associated characters. Users can type in English, Pinyin, or Chinese to find the desired entry. Once on the correct page, the user can find several sentence examples for each definition, a character breakdown (excellent for understanding the meaning behind the complexity of Chinese symbols), and other words beginning with or containing the originally searched word.
Additionally, Pleco has an assortment of useful add-ons you can access for a price- anywhere from $4.99 for audio recordings of Cantonese or Mandarin, to $79.99 for all 21 add-ons. For either the long-term expat or the short term visitor, Pleco is essential for attaining survival Chinese and even expanding beyond.
2) Waygo (iOS, Android)
It may sound like it needs to be the next slang trend, but this app is worth every cent for unlimited use. Considering China is not known for reliable Internet service, having a translation app that doesn’t require a data connection is immeasurably valuable. Unlike with Pleco, Waygo can use your camera to decipher written Chinese. You’ll definitely want that convenience when confronted with the novel-esque Chinese menus you’ll find everywhere. Sure, the translations may not make much sense, but Waygo can help you try to avoid foods you find unappetizing. If memory serves me right, I paid around $7, and I never once regretted it.
3) Bing Translator (iOS, Android)
Although Waygo is worth the money, Bing Translator is free. Considering the discrepancies that often arise in Chinese translation, it’s useful (if not necessary) to cross reference. Now, I despise all things Bing as a person forced to use it because I’m (mostly) deprived of Google, but this app even allows you to upload captured photos, while Waygo only allows you to capture them in the moment. Of course, you’ll need a data connection to use this option; however, if you’ve got one, using this app in conjunction with Waygo will help you make some sense of one of the most complicated languages in the world.
4) Google Translate
This app is listed last for good reason. Although Google is God of the Internet in most parts of the world, China is one huge exception. There are plenty of VPN services to choose from, but as previously stated, China’s web service isn’t exactly trustworthy. Additionally, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to nearly an hour to land a decent VPN connection. Also, expect that connection to rapidly eat through your data. For these reasons, Google almost isn’t even worth using in the land of the Great Firewall. Still, if you’ve got a rare, steady Wi-Fi connection and some time on your hands, it’s an option.
Despite all the great apps out there for Chinese now, your best resource is a Chinese friend! It can definitely be intimidating to try out a new, difficult language, but I strongly advise you to get all the practice you reasonably can!