Google makes its Translate mobile apps available for users in China

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Google has reintroduced its Translate mobile apps to China, where they can now be accessed and used without the need for software to bypass local censorship.

The U.S. tech giant left China more than seven years ago when it redirected its local search engine to Hong Kong and many of its services are censored in the country. Today’s low-key relaunch marks the first time it has revived a service specifically for users in China.

Google has maintained a web-based version of Translate that has been accessible since its China exit, but with half of China’s 1.4 billion population using the internet on mobile, according to the latest government figures, these apps will give the service wider reach. The iOS version of Translate is available in the Chinese App Store, while Google is directing Android users to a direct download from its servers here. Previously, those in China could only use the app when connected to a VPN to evade the government’s internet censorship system.

“Google Translate has been available in China for more than eight years. Today, we’re making our Translate app work better for Chinese users,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The apps will be maintained by Google’s joint-venture in China, which runs the services it has remaining there, and will be subject to any government-issued requests or censorship, Google confirmed.

Google added that users of the Chinese version have full access to the service, which includes Word Lens, the feature that translates text from photos snapped inside the app. Word Lens gained support Chinese last year and Chinese was the first language Google picked for its new machine learning translation technology, which went live last September and hugely advanced the way the service works.

“With today’s update, we’re hoping to make the Translate experience better for Chinese users, helping break down language barriers by connecting people around the world,” Google wrote in a blog post.

The launch was applauded by GreatFire, a nonprofit group that tracks internet censorship in China and has helped the BBC, The New York Times and other media beat Chinese censors.

“I am encouraged that Google is making the app available for direct download, in essence thwarting censorship of the Google Play store in China,” said Charlie Smith, the organization’s pseudonymous head.

“I hope that Google will provide support and guidance to app developers who want to adopt similar tactics and I applaud Google for finally deploying an effective anti-censorship initiative in China,” Smith added.

Publicly, at least, Google is saying that the launch of the Chinese version of the app is about giving more options to Chinese internet users, who also have services from Baidu and other Chinese companies available, but today’s news marks a notable advance on its China strategy.

Translate won’t generate revenue for Google, but it may boost its visibility among Chinese internet users. Potentially, it sets a precedent for introducing China-specific versions of other Google apps and services in the future, although the company declined to comment when we asked it about that directly.

Then there’s also the possibility that this launch is a litmus test or precursor to the re-introduction of Google Play in China.

Reuters, The Information and other media have consistently reported over the past year that Google harbors ambitions to bring the Google Play Store to Chinese soil. Despite the rumblings, there’s been no concrete advance on this apparent objective. Even then, there’s no guarantee that any such move would be successful. China’s Android ecosystem is dominated by a number of third-party app stores, including 91 Wireless (acquired by Baidu for $1.9 billion in 2013), Alibaba-owned Wandoujia and offerings from Tencent and Xiaomi.

China’s colossal base of more than 730 million internet users has turned it into an important market for mobile. The country recently overtook the U.S. to become the world’s most lucrative market for iOS app developers, and it’s a market where Google has little footprint. The company connected China-based developers with its global app store footprint two years ago, but it’s no surprise that Google is reported to be exploring the possibilities inside China.

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