These handheld devices translate hundreds of thousands of words and phrases between dozens of languages—some even speak, and one even understands what you say and can translate instantly
Sure, eventually we'll all have apps that can work offline to translate on the fly for us at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated unit (currently, the only ones that really work well require an internet connection, and data roaming charges on the road are astronomical). For now, these handheld, calculator-sized devices have amazing offline capabilities yet to be seen in an iPhone or Android.
The talking translator
It's the size of a calculator, and it literally speaks 20 languages. The Lingo Xplorer 52 Talking Translator knows 1,000,000 words and 100,000 useful phrases in 52 languages. What's more, it can speak them in a native's crisp, local accent.
This makes it a much better learning tool than puzzling over the pronunciation guide in a Berlitz, and also provides a wimp's way out of actually learning the lingo. Just walk up to a hotel clerk, select the right phrase, and the Lingo will ask for the price of a double room on your behalf.
But wait, there's more! (Always wanted to say that.) It has a built-in FM radio, world alarm clock, voice recorder, calculator, calendar, metric and currency converter, and eight games for long train rides (since Mine Sweeper and Sudoku are the same in any language). My favorite phrase: "I have been bitten by a dog" in German. $249.99 from Magellan's.
(There's also cheaper Lingo Eurotalk 6-Language Translator does 360,000 words and 20,000 phrases—plus currency and metric conversions—in English, Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Greek for just $99.85.)
The talking and listening translator
You can really upgrade into the realm of Star Trek instant translators and get the Ectaco NTL-8C iTRAVL Talking 2-Way Multilingual Language Communicator and Electronic Dictionary.
You speak into it, and it (a) recognizes your language and what you said, (b) translates it into any of eight other languages of your choice, and then (c) spits it back out in the foreign tongue. Wow.
It knows 3,370,000 words, and 14,000 travel phrases, in English, Italian, French, German, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, and Spanish.
You can carry on entire, albeit stilted conversations by asking a question in English, having it repeat your question in Italian for the local, then they say their answer in Italian and the iTRAVL translates it into English for you.
Oh, and it also comes with a built-in language teacher so you can actually learn some Italian, plus a talking calculator, cultural notes, time zone maps, and Fodor's restaurant, hotel, and sightseeing info on 50 major destinations on five continents and the CIA World Factbook. Did I mention it can play MP3s and audio books (some travel ones are already included)?
There is, of course, a price to be paid for this technological Wunderkind: $499.95 from Amazon.
The low-tech option
You can go really low-tech (and cheap: $14.85) with the laminated, foldable Kwikpoint card covered with cartoonish pictures off all the things a traveler might need—double bed, taxi, AAA battery, ice skates, pig, computer printer, toothpaste, cheese, gas station, can opener, policeman, etc.
You just unfold it like a map, point at the thing you want, and throw on the local word for "please?"