It all started at a startup convention. Friends and fellow entrepreneurs Mayel de Borniol (French) and Josef Dunne (British) were in Greece for Startegy last November. Like most conferences, Startegy had a roster of hopefuls pitching a variety of ideas on stage, getting feedback from the audience, and then brainstorming to further refine the project.
That’s when the problems started. Dunne and de Borniol sat among other non-native Greek speakers struggling to understand the presentations. Unfortunately, comprehension was core to the success of the event, as the audience voted on the ideas pitched.
Dunne and de Borniol conferred and just before the series of presentations ended they were up on stage outlining their solution for person-to-person simultaneous interpretation via smartphone. "We received a tremendous reaction from the audience," de Borniol tells Fast Company—and Babelverse was born. (The company's name was inspired by Douglas Adams' iconic 1979 book, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," and it's not the first translating service to reference the novel.)
In a global economy, with startup initiatives popping up everywhere from Malaysia to Charlotte, NC, it’s no surprise that the business of translation is not only necessary, but ubiquitous. Indeed, Google "translation service" and you’ll get over 91 million hits. But Babelverse is angling to be the first application for real-time voice translation, powered by a global community of human interpreters. Anybody can use it to obtain on-the-spot interpretation, in any language.
Dunne asserts, "Being a native English speaker who lives abroad, I experience many people trying to use English as the de facto language, but this unfortunately lowers the quality of communication. We want to enable everyone to understand one another while each speaking in their native language."
Validation quickly followed. Babelverse came in second at Global Entrepreneurship Week 2010 and Dunne and de Borniol got a shot at both presenting and trying the service at TEDxAcademy. During the relief efforts for Japanese earthquake victims, the two pulled an all-night coding marathon to provide a dedicated and free service for aid teams, NGOs, the media, and locals. In the first 48 hours, more than 100 bilingual people volunteered.
Staying true to their global roots, the Babelverse team took their idea on the road again, this time to South America to take part in Startup Chile, a government initiative that provides a platform for early-stage entrepreneurs to go global.
Aside from the funds provided without taking any equity, Startup Chile helped with living costs and development of the project, Dunne and de Borniol passed on a capital infusion while still in Greece and have bootstrapped the business all along.
Now that Babelverse is ready to officially launch, Dunne and de Borniol will take to the stage again. At LeWeb Conference in Paris this week. There, more than 60 countries will be represented, and Babelverse will be one of 16 specially selected presenters.
Though they are no longer the only player in the field—Google’s since debuted a "conversation mode" feature on Translate for Android that offers automated voice translation between Spanish and English—Dunne and de Borniol are convinced Babelverse is set to disrupt the traditional conference interpreting industry by allowing companies to eschew the expense of on-site interpreters and special hardware. Babelfish takes it a step further by also giving the average unilingual Joe or Jane the service on their smartphone for the price of a call.
The difference is in the people, say the two. Algorithms that mash up speech recognition, machine translation, and robotic speech just don’t cut it, they maintain. Human interpreters can keep inflections and inferences (no more stilted formality!) while preserving context and cutting the culture divide by appropriately translating colloquialisms. If Dunne and de Borniol can create their own API, Babelverse translators have the potential to make mistakes, from the merely embarrassing to life-threatening, disappear.
Not to mention Dunne and de Borniol point out, that the application’s got potential to be new channel of income for multilingual speakers everywhere. Babelverse’s business model is currently relying on end users or businesses and conferences purchasing "real-time interpretation credit/packages."
Interpreters will receive 70% of that, they say, and plan to set the pricing per language-pair based on a variety of factors "in a way that aims to provide a fair income to interpreters," while keeping the cost "accessible to all."
Dunne notes, "We will not end up like elance.com type websites, where users set their own rates, which leads to a reverse auction, and the tendency is that the cheapest and lowest quality often win. Quality is integral for our business."
To insure quality translators, Babelverse will have a user-generated ranking system for different levels of interpreters: professionals, semi-professionals, and skilled multilingual amateurs for casual conversation.
If it all works according to plan, Babelverse’s founders envision a world where "millions of members make on-demand interpretation in any language easily accessible, available to everyone, anytime, everywhere, and on any device."
Awkward conversational gaffes would become a thing of the past. "Our vision is the seemingly science-fictional idea of everyone being able to simply talk to each other in their respective native languages, and seamlessly understand each other."
Photo of Babelverse founders by Kunal Ck Kalro