On Babelverse

It's an old dream of mankind: to finally overcome the confusion of tongues, supposedly caused by an incident at the tower of Babel. Even if you're not a huge fan of science fiction, you will probably have come across one incarnation or another of the "universal translator". A London-based startup called Babelverse (see their Crunchbase entry for more info) currently tries to become exactly that: a universal translator "in your pocket". If you haven't heard of them, I recommend you watch this video to learn more before we dig in deeper:

The three guys behind Babelverse (Josef Dunne, Mayel de Borniol and Zachary Zorbas) have set out to bring us a revolution in communication that would make interpretation accessible to everyone at the price of a mobile phone call. They "aim to do to language barriers what the airplane did to geographical barriers". How? Let's recap: Build a tiered community of "Trainee Enthusiasts", "Skilled Enthusiasts" and "Professionals" and match them with people who need interpreting services on various levels of difficulty using consumer technology such as Skype and Google Hangouts. "Trainee enthusiasts" work for free in "casual conversations" and can work their way up to the next level where they can charge by the minute. "Professionals" have to show extensive experience and/or training. Client demand and interpreter supply are to be matched by a "smart algorithm", the Babelverse people say.

Sounds great, you say? Well, several blogs and Twitter accounts of interpreters are currently abuzz with discussion of the disruptors. Elisabeth Tiselius (aka @tulkur) and Michelle Hof (of Interpreter Diaries fame) have contributed the posts "Babel Precarity", "Babel Precarity - more questions" and "An open letter to the founders of Babelverse" respectively. Katherine Allen has chimed in over at InterpretAmerica with her post on the (potentially positive) power of disruption. The Babelverse team have replied here. I really recommend you read those posts and also the comments, if you're interested in the topic.

Update: "The Babelverse polemic", by Mirna Soares of Corpora Translations

To join the discussion, here are my two (or so) eurocents in no particular order.

  1. Babelverse enters the interpretation scene during an interesting time, where there is a lot of discussion about new technologies and especially remote interpretation. Many of us see the profession put into question on many levels. This is obviously not the founders' fault.
  2. Watching the coverage of tech conferences, you can tell that the Babelverse guys get the technorati excited by using buzzwords such as "disruption", "crowdsourcing", "revolution" and "platform" (more on that later). They use a revenue-sharing model that - thanks to Apple - has become well-established for smartphone apps and digital books. Given how quickly smartphone adoption will develop in the next years, they have a potentially huge user base. The thing is: Entrepreneurship, Google-type beta status and the Facebook approach of "move fast and break things" seem to rub many professional interpreters the wrong way. They (we!) have been told and taught over and over again how do this job professionally (for starters: only accept assignments you are competent for and prepare thoroughly).
  3. I believe, however, that Babelverse is on to something with volunteer language mediation in other contexts such as natural disasters. If they teamed up with Red T or Inzone, the center for interpreting in conflict zones at the renowned ETI Geneva, that could be a really useful first phase that they can build upon later. And they actually did join relief efforts after the Japanese tsunami (according to the company, 150 bilingual people contributed by interpreting or translating websites). The thing is: Natural disaster areas and conflict zones tend to lack the necessary IT infrastructure that Babelverse requires.
  4. Babelverse presents itself as providing a solution for any interpretation setting. It may well work for making yourself understood in a Greek pharmacy (leaving roaming fees aside for the moment). The thing is: You don't do business interpreting just by whipping out your smartphone.What about quality (of both the audio and the interpretation), confidentiality, company-specific jargon or correctly rendering numbers and facts?
  5. "Babelverse is being used today for events and conferences, for both attendees and remote viewers. There’s no more need for expensive specialised equipment and on–site interpreters." The thing is: There's a reason why we have that equipment and why we prefer to be on-site. It's called quality. There is quite a bit of research on remote interpretation so no need to go into detail here. The Virtual Booth Guide, I'm afraid, does not convince me.
  6. Babelverse eventually wants to become a platform that provides interpretation to other apps or services, almost like an API. The thing is: Even if they manage to build a big pool of available interpreters, I reckon it will be almost impossible to maintain a steady supply of available people. Twitter is only fun as long as there's no fail whale.
  7. Here's the elephant in the room: money. Language services have been under price pressure for some time and many interpreters wonder if there is enough money for them to make ends meet. Publicly, Babelverse promises to bring down interpretation costs "down to a mobile phone call", citing a price for 0,50 €/minute for the French/English language pair. When calculating rates, Babelverse looks at the cost of living in the country where a given language is spoken the most. Also, they set the rates themselves to avoid a "bid to the bottom" and "preserve quality". The thing is: If we take Spanish as an example and look at the many Spanish-speaking countries throughout the world, we'll see that the standard of living varies greatly among them. Which one do you chose for calculating the rate? During a Skype call, Josef and Mayel pointed out that they do not consider themselves an agency. But what do you call an intermediate who keeps 30 percent of the money for himself? As Marta Piera Martin pointed out: "Most companies can budget for interpretation and don't need to give 30% to Babelverse. They can negotiate a price with smaller companies or individualtranslators and interpreters who already work at home alone or with'boothmates' at low/'reasonable' rates."

It may well be that we are on the brink of a technological revolution similar to the, well, disruption that the Nuremburg Trials helped bring about with simultaneous interpretation. But right now I have the feeling Babelverse may have bitten off more than they can chew. I doubt that consumer IT is up to this task yet. However, I look forward to continuing the discussion between them and the interpreting profession (they will participate in a panel at the InterpretAmerica Summit). How we perceive the disruptors will largely depend on how the react to the concerns that many of us have voiced.

Dick Fleming on high-level interpretation

Presentation at BDÜ conference