There haven’t been many episodes of Star Trek that didn’t rely upon the ‘universal translator’ to some degree, but while the idea of a device that could convert speech into another language is very compelling, it’s one that’s yet to be realised in any significant way.

Google — surprise, surprise — is working on it though, and its new Google Translate iPhone app is extremely impressive. Google first launched its mobile translation service in 2008, but that simply offered a smartphone-friendly text-based version of its web translation service — you type in a word or phrase, choose a target language and get a written translation in return.

The Google Translate iPhone app, however, takes things to the next level and adds speech recognition to its language translation skills. In other words (no pun intended), you just need to speak into the iPhone microphone and the app will detect what you’ve said and not only provide an appropriate translation on-screen for 50 languages in a huge font, but will also provide an audio playback of the translation in 24 of them.

So, even if you don’t have much faith in your Swedish accent, you can still order a couple of beers by getting the waiter to listen to your iPhone. In addition to English, the app can also translate speech from 15 other languages, so if you have a problem understanding someone speaking in Polish or Portuguese, you can simply point them at the microphone and get the app to translate for you.

It all sounds a bit like something from science fiction, but incredibly, it works. You need to speak clearly for the speech recognition to be accurate and you’ll need an internet connection for new translations (old ones are stored in the app for later reference), but the Google Translate iPhone app is an invaluable tool for making yourself understood overseas. And, of course, it’s free.

[Google Translate iPhone app on iTunes]