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 You may have heard contradictory things, which were sometimes outdated or simply misunderstood.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: