Gmail Translations: Who Needs It?

Martin Brinkmann
May 20, 2009
Updated • Jul 3, 2017
Email, Gmail

A new feature was recently introduced on Gmail that may be enabled by users to translate email messages automatically on Gmail.

Update: The feature has since then been integrated into Gmail. It is no longer necessary to enable it in Labs before it can be used. You should see a translate option on top of all foreign language emails that you can use to translate it to another language.

If you don't see the link, click on the down arrow icon next to the reply button, and select "translate message" from the menu that opens. Translation of certain languages can be turned off again as well.

gmail translate emails

As you can see, options to translate foreign emails are displayed directly on Gmail. Update End

The feature is currently available in the Labs section in the Gmail settings.

The Message Translation add-on enables you to translate incoming email messages with a click of the mouse button. A "translate message to" option is displayed when you are viewing emails on Gmail that are not in your native language.

A user from the United States would see the option for emails not written in English while a German would see the option for all non-German emails that are in the inbox.

The feature has to be activated in the Labs tab of the Settings before it becomes available. It is possible to change the language that the message should get translated to in the same menu. The translated email will be displayed in the same spot that the original email occupied without reloading the rest of the page. The quality of the translations is equal to those of Google Translate.

A great way of testing the quality is to enter a text into Google Translate, translate that text to another language and translate that text back to the original language. The general consensus is that it is possible to understand the meaning of the original text in most cases.

But who needs the translation service? It might be interesting for users who receive lots of email messages in languages that they do not understand. But how likely is that scenario? The average Internet user receives the majority of emails in the native language and if that is not English then in English as well. It might be helpful in some cases, for example running an eBay auction and receiving an inquiry from a foreign language speaking user.


Yes, some Gmail users might find this new translation add-on handy. The majority of users on the other hand will most likely ignore it as its use case is limited.

Gmail Translations: Who Needs It?
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Gmail Translations: Who Needs It?
A new feature was recently introduced on Gmail that may be enabled by users to translate email messages automatically on Gmail.
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  1. ANH said on August 11, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Flutefreak, FYI, in most countries in Europe, the first language is NOT English. Maybe second, but even then not as often as you think.

  2. AussieSheila said on May 20, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    To be honest, I don’t think it’s a very useful feature. Based on personal experience, I can say that gmail translator will hardly ever be used. I have a lot of friends all over the world and we exchange emails in English. It’s highly unlikely that one would make friends and not speak the same language. As for work, most people will discard emails not in English or their native language. Unless they want to translate every spam email, that is.

  3. flutefreak7 said on May 20, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    You could perhaps sign up for a newsletter on a foreign site (viewed using Google-translate) and be able to read that newsletter in your own language.

    I’ve also seen a number of young people in forums from other countries with poor English. This would allow them to read English emails in their own language if the vocabulary is too challenging.

    Also as we come a little closer to having a “universal translator” it may become unnecessary for people to personally translate their messages into the language of the recipient.

    I had a school senior project in which we collaborated with French college students. Their emails were in both French and English. Presumeably the French part was written first because it was most natural, the they translated into English for our benefit. When We sent them emails though, we didn’t bother rewriting them in French, because English is expected to be known everywhere. The gmail translate feature could be great here.

    While most European countries speak English as a first or second language this could really help bridge gaps with Oriental people online. Try following a niche community like an alternative sport, high scoring in a rare video game, or obscure music/art and you’ll quickly find that there are online communities scattered in different languages that either don’t talk to each other, or don’t even know the other exists because of search engine limitations. Once you do find your new foreign friend, how do you talk to them?

  4. dwarf_toss said on May 20, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Not remotely useful for 95% of email users if I had to venture a guess. Now Googlebar-Lite’s “Translate to English” right click function on the other hand….infinitely useful. Especially for decoding those rune-ridden sites (more like squares and blocks for me).

    Rat had a good point concerning the purpose of labs. At any rate, watch what you say about Google, they know where you live!

  5. Amr said on May 20, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    @Schlomo: Except that the spam filter in Gmail is pretty good, so it’s not likely that you’ll see those Chinese spam emails – unless you dive intentionally into your spam folder, just to find one ;)

    Generally, I agree with the original post. While the translation service is useful for random pieces of text or for web pages, it’s not as useful for emails. When someone sends an email to me, they want me to read it, so they would send it in some language that I would understand. If they don’t put in some effort to give me something I can read, then why should I put the effort to translate it?

  6. Schlomo said on May 20, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    C’mon man? Give Google some merits. This feature is brilliant. For instance, you’ll finally get to understand what those chinese spam emails advertise.

    Aren’t you curious about that? I know I do :D

  7. Junkman said on May 20, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    As for me-I don’t much care about gmail as I never use it, my fav is GMX mail which gives me everything I need.

  8. Squealing Rat said on May 20, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    I think that that is why Google Labs exists, not to please the entire Gmail army, but to help that one out of ten. The service allows you to personalize your Gmail, so it won’t be able to please everyone.

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