BABELVERSE: Disruptive innovation, opportunity or threat?

Babelverse, like many innovations, is bound to have a big impact on established industries and professions. But is that good news or bad news?

By definition, disruptive innovation can bring evolutionary (or even revolutionary) changes, improvements and sustainable expansion to an existing market. Or sometimes it just creates a new market that displaces and eventually replaces what came before. (Radio, TV and the internet are examples of the former. Horse-drawn carriages & mass-produced cars are example of the latter.)

Call us wide-eyed, but with Babelverse we’ve endeavoured to figure out a holistic recipe that’s the best of both worlds. On the one hand is the interpreting profession, for whom we bring innovative tools made possible by today’s technologies, and access to a larger global market made possible by working remotely. On the other hand, seeing our increasingly globally connected world, we leverage the power of multi-linguals, to create an entirely new market of informal on-the-spot interpretation affordable to travellers and glomads of all kinds.

As the book “Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World” illustrates in countless poignant ways, language barriers are present in every aspect of our lives, and we started the Babelverse project simply because we needed it ourself (and realised we’re not alone!) Like Siegfried Ramler, the chief of interpreting at the Nuremberg trials (for which simultaneous interpretation was invented) says, “necessity is the mother of invention”.

In the “lean startup” way, we have experimented a lot, learning how to make it work through trial and error, until arriving where we are today (and the journey isn’t over). You may have heard contradictory things, which were sometimes outdated or simply misunderstood. It’s easy to mix up or not grasp the differences between our various offerings, because of the diverse range of people who power Babelverse (from enthusiastic multi-linguals to professional conference interpreters) and situations it can be used for (from helping a tourist with directions to interpreting international summits).

We’ve always been very transparent (see for example our page containing a lot of information on Being a Babelverse Interpreter which we encourage you to read), but we realise people in the profession still have many questions, maybe because our past communications (at conferences or in the press) have been mostly geared at tech audiences.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  – Nelson Mandela

So let’s clear up a few myths and make some statements about where we stand:

  • We recognise that interpretation is a difficult skill, and that being multilingual isn’t nearly enough. It requires training, hard work, experience and arguably even a certain predisposition. Our tiered system and future plans (notably related to training) account for that.
  • Babelverse makes a clear distinction between enthusiastic multi-linguals and qualified professional linguists, they are made available to users for distinct use cases and situations (informal vs. business, helpful vs. critical), and at different rates. As you may know, that is not the case for most companies in the remote interpretation space.
  • We want interpreters on our platform to receive a fair income and to be in control of their own schedule. They can choose what days & time-slots they are available, interpreting notifications are then sent during these times, interpreters then accept requests they choose.
  • On day 1 – literally – of the Babelverse Project, we decided that the split would be would be 70-30 (interpreters receiving 70% of what the client pays for interpretation), and have stuck to it, putting much thought and effort into our rates and variable costs to make this work.
  • That said, as you’d probably expect, our rates are lower than those paid by large organisations such as the UN or EU. Our business model has always been to find the sweet spot between being affordable to as many people as possible, while also being a fair source of income. That is why Babelverse sets the rates.
  • Our pricing system calculates a base rate for each possible language pair, based on an average cost of living in the countries where they are most spoken (using consolidated data from several international sources). We then adjust the base rate according to the tier of service (enthusiast, professional…), use case (consecutive, simultaneous…), and skill-set (specialist topics). These rates will soon be published publicly, and in the meantime the applicable rate is always indicated in a job notification.
  • Babelverse is based on using off-the-shelf devices, internet connections and phone lines. Of course the transmission quality of sound & video is not as high as with specialised hardware and dedicated satellite links (and obviously physical presence). But that keeps costs low, which allows us to offer affordable prices to many users who would otherwise be excluded, and to pay interpreters the share we do. Also, with the speed of technological progress (eg. Moore’s law), we are confident that this will only keep improving very quickly, and are constantly testing & developing new tools and techniques to that end.
  • There are some situations where more serious and costly solutions (such as on-site interpreters) are beneficial or even required – the potential market is big enough to accommodate both.
  • We’ve mostly focused on creating new niches, providing our service to clients and users who would otherwise not have access to interpretation, due to a lack of awareness, or the complexity and high costs traditionally associated.

And more specifically about remote simultaneous interpreting:

  • We recognise the huge mental focus and energy required, and as such the value in having a “booth mate”, and always schedule at least two interpreters per language. The virtual booth environment we’re developing helps them collaborate remotely, such as note taking, monitoring that the active interpreter is being heard, and switching seamlessly with each other at any time. When two booth mates have gotten along well and collaborated effectively, they can indicate that connection, which will be taken account for next jobs.
  • We also have a “chef d’equipe”, at least for large events, helping the interpreters with coordination, tech support and feedback. When it’s being interpreted into several languages, notes can also be shared among all.
  • We usually schedule each interpreter for full half-day slots, and pay for the total time they are on the job, including when they’re supporting their booth mate but aren’t “on air”. If the event goes over schedule, we also pay for that overtime too.
  • We know that preparation is key to providing a quality service, and do our best to educate event organisers to schedule and set up their conference to provide the best environment. Our minimum requirements include all speakers using individual microphones, and shown on a live video feed, and we strive to obtain speakers’ information, presentation slides and any prepared speeches in advance.
  • We require interpreters to use headsets & microphones for quality sound, provide them with clear technical requirements and usage guides, and frequently conduct 1-on-1 technical tests as well.

All in all, Babelverse is a movement to harness the power of language and human communication to bring the world closer together. It can create a new lifestyle that makes work in cubicles (or booths!) a thing of the past, a lifestyle where geography, or the place where you happened to be born, are no longer a barrier, with which you can have fun helping people, while making a good living for yourself.

We’ve been putting – and will continue to put – a lot of effort into developing a sustainable business model and the best tools for interpreters, working alongside many interpreters to do so. We are always happy to speak with people who want to be involved in Babelverse’s development, simply by offering feedback or in a more involved capacity.

Opening up the discussion and those announcements!

To that end, we’ll be participating in an on-line public discussion on the topic in the coming weeks (date TBA, follow our Twitter / Facebook page to stay informed) with a few respected members of the interpreting profession and industry, such as Prof. Barry Olsen (founder of InterpretAmerica), Martin Esposito, Prof. Esther M. Navarro-Hall (owner of 1Culture). The venue will be a Google Hangout that anyone will be able to watch, both live or later on. The date and time will be announced at a later date, so if you’d like to participate or simply be notified, as well as if you have any questions or feedback you’d like discussed, please fill out this form. UPDATE: (6 Oct 2013) This has been postponed until a later date when everyone is available.

We’ll  be participating in a panel on “The Coming Wave: Technologies That May Disrupt Interpretation” at the InterpretAmerica Summit this June 14-15th, and look forward to have more fruitful discussions with the industry, and hopefully meet some of you there in person!

Thanks for reading. Time for a cup of tea.

UPDATE (6 Oct 2013): The panel and presentation took place, we announced the first working draft of our rates and released an updated FAQ for Professional Interpreters (Black Belts), we also publicly published the slides we presented:

Babelverse Presentation at InterpretAmerica Summit, June 2013 from Babelverse

8 thoughts on “BABELVERSE: Disruptive innovation, opportunity or threat?”

  1. As a long time professional interpreter and software developer (I started back in the the 14.4kb dial-up modem days) I would be interested to know what technology layer Babelverse offers on top of what everybody with a computer, a decent mic, and a broadband internet connection could do on their own.

    If it’s just Skype for everybody and Babelverse doing the client acquisition and the billing, I’m afraid that the vision is far from being revolutionary at all. For as long as I care to remember we’ve had intermediaries (then brick-and-mortar, now going virtual) whose only skill is to try and resell services that they themselves often have little understanding of.

    I’m no Luddite, and I have 800+ days of remote interpreting under my belt (for television and radio), but professional conference interpreting goes well beyond the 10-minute phone call that a businessman calling abroad needs an interpreter for. Professional conference interpreting is team work, and you need the whole team in the same place. And you can’t do that with consumer electronics.

    And if it were to become an option in the future, which will take both technological innovation and a major re-training effort on the part of the interpreters, why should professionals accept to work anonymously for an outfit that takes 30% off their fees, when they could simply set it up themselves?

    Vincent Buck
    AIIC Conference Interpreter

    1. Thanks for your comment. First off, our vision is not a technological one, why create new technologies when we can utilise the tech we have today, let’s not re-invent that part… yet.

      When it comes to conference interpreting, we’ve acknowledged that this is a different kettle of fish, it requires a great skill and extensive experience, please read about our levels of service, but with the age of internet collaboration, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, Skype Conference Calls, Social Media, we don’t agree that the interpreters have to be in the same room. Perhaps not all interpreters are cut out to work this way, but with the right tools in place it is possible for interpreters along with an interpreter lead to co-ordinate and collaborate on one project while being distributed globally, we’ve already been experimenting with this over the past 2 years and it is possible and works very well, when you put interpreters in the same virtual booth it is amazing watching them collaborate. And thus, because we are already using tools people are familiar with (web browser, tablets, smartphones, telephony networks, the internets) the re-training is very far from major. All tech-savvy translators and interpreters know how to use Google. Same thing with Babelverse.

      To make it clear, we believe there is a place for in-person conference interpreting, but we are bringing interpreting to a client base (events/conferences/live streams) that would otherwise be unable to afford it, or just simply it wouldn’t cross their minds that such a service exists.

      There is a transition, there is this thing we call the internet now, it is inevitable things will evolve.

      Remember, our vision is to create the universal translator and bring interpretation to the masses. It is not a technological one per se.

      Also, our interpreters do not work anonymously, all our translators and interpreters have public profiles (for example) and we recognise their interpreting work see here: we are not middle men who try to hide their language pool, we spotlight and put a face to our amazing force of global language talent.

      Good luck Buck.

      1. Sir,

        Thank you for confirming that Babelverse is indeed turning out to be just another intermediary and not an integrated platform for providing professional remote interpreting services.

        Now, you write that “in the age of internet collaboration (…), we don’t agree that the interpreters have to be in the same room”.

        May I ask who is “we” and why I or anyone reading this for that matter should lend credence to that view?

        As it happens, interpreting has been researched quitae extensively over the past 50 or so years.

        In the mid 90s, the FTC cracked down on AIIC in the US for allegedly engaging in price-fixing, but had to dismiss all charges regarding to other professional standards. As you may or may not know, such standards include team strength or the length of an interpreter’s working day, but also sound quality and the location of booths (and screens, in the case of remote).

        Indeed, scientific studies have shown that such standards are necessary not only to guarantee the health of the professionals concerned, but also the quality of service. For instance, an interpreter – however experienced – will start fudging after 1 hour solo on the mic, and not even realize it.

        You say that your experience over the last 2 years indicates that your system works very well. Is that merely an opinion or have you conducted appraisals? If yes, could you let us have the protocol?

        The least you could do is provide samples such sterling interpreting work. I seem to remember that you launched your service with last year’s State of the Union address. Why don’t you have recordings of Babelverse interpreters so that anyone interested may listen to form an opinion?

        At any rate, picking the state of the Union address as an opening event seems to indicate that you think Babelverse is amenable to conference interpreting.

        I also tried in vain to listen in during last year’s Techcrunch Disrupt but all I could hear is somebody apparently breathing heavily into the microphone. Not that it mattered at all, since the typical TD attendee speaks and understands English well enough not to rely on interpreting services.

        As far as I can see, the significant risk with services such as Babelverse is that you may get some traction in some markets where interpreting is not primarily done by professionals (the USA comes to mind).

        The net result of all this will be some money for you but a systematic dumbing down of interpreting as a profession.

        As it happens, there are people who spend 5 years at university, a few more years in the country(ies) of their languages to further hone them, apply for membership in a professional association when they have stood the test of the market, before they dare call themselves an interpreter. And they have a legitimate hope to ply their trade in acceptable working and monetary conditions, knowing full well that an interpreter is only as good as his or her last job. I’m afraid that awarding them ‘Babelverse badges’ and hosting their profile on your website, may not quite be enough recognition for all that hard work.

        It’s not just the interpreters. As a professional I firmly believe that clients and users who depend on interpreting are entitled to the best possible service.

        I’m afraid that you in your drive to make the front page of Hackernews you have been rushing a few things. It’s one thing to launch a website, go social and appeal to a community of like-minded technoratis who have a smattering of two or three languages. It’s another to understand what the profession that you’re trying to sell.

        1. Some very valid comments have been made above, but aside from the points raised there, I am left wondering how two non-interpreters can get a full grasp of such a complex profession.

          The interpreting market is notoriously difficult to work one’s way into, as any established or budding interpreter can testify to. And here I am talking about it being difficult for well-trained intelligent professionals who know what they are doing. Learning one’s way around the market involves years of making mistakes, opening one’s eyes to the panoply of different clients and their needs, learning how to avoid treading on others’ toes and understanding other interpreters and their expectations in order to work together.

          It’s no surprise to see an initiative like Babelverse springing up, since it’s true, there’s a lot of technology out there and a lot of people who want to be interpreters. However, providing interpretation is not as simple as linking the speaker, interpreter and listener via an internet connection, whether or not it be with cutting-edge technology. And it is probably difficult to understand the reasons why without having worked as an interpreter.

          I feel that where Babelverse really falls down is its lack of understanding of what conference interpreting entails, and it is a shame to see so much energy invested in a project which is potentially very misguided.

          I don’t see where the innovation in this idea lies, given that any number of interpreters could have bunched together in the past and paid good money to someone with technical expertise to set up a similar system if it were the right direction to take the profession in. It’s true that repackaging interpreting and giving it the shiny gleam of a Silicon Valley startup is maybe something new. But that does not mean that it will improve the experience for the client or the interpreter, and it will certainly do nothing to raise the quality of interpretation.

          There are a certain number of things which could be changed in the interpreting profession, but one project which provides an internet link to a conference room and labels it as innovation is not likely to be one of the upcoming great breakthroughs.

          However, I am ready to be proven wrong and will be interested to see any replies regarding my two colleagues’ comments above.

      2. I’m not wholly convinced Babelverse is concerned with ‘democracy’ and bringing expensive interpreting to ‘poor’ users ‘who would otherwise be excluded’; despite its claims to contrary.

        It’s hard to believe travellers will use it. At best/worst they’ll use Google on their
        smartphones or even continue to have fun trying to communicate in a foreign
        language. Glomads obviously have no spirit of adventure.

        Most companies can budget for interpretation and don’t need to give 30% to
        Babelverse. They can negotiate a price with smaller companies or individual
        translators and interpreters who already work at home alone or with
        ‘boothmates’ at low/’reasonable’ rates. Yes, it looks like some companies are
        already there.

        Interpreters working for courts, hospitals, police (and therefore, possibly the poor people who really need interpretation, including the sick, asylum seekers etc ) have already been taken advantage of by other companies who also, on contract with government bodies, fix rates that leave the interpreters with very
        low incomes.

        Is this just another service provider/ company wanting to make a profit as an intermediary, not even inventing new technology, just playing on the sympathies of the crowd. But the crowd shouldn’t be fooled.

        Is this just another start-up reacting to reports that translation and interpretation is the most rapid growth industry at the moment? Middlemen and agents responding to a call to make a quick return?

        Marta Piera Marin

  2. I’ll be joining the Google hangout. I want to hear what Babel is going to say. Remote interpreting is here to stay (we all know that). I want to enter the conversation and make sure they adress critical issues (working conditions, liability, payment, quality assurance, among many others) If Babelverse comes up with a deadline by which the platform will be completely ready, I will try it and write my own post about it. I want to be proactive. I think both Babelverse and the interpreting community will benefit from discussion. In fact, all these posts here and in several other sies are a great way to the dialogue started.

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