Universal Translator

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“Universal translators” have fuelled science fiction plots for decades, and building such a device

has long been the Holy Grail for tech-oriented linguists. However, the prototypes that have appeared so far have used machine translation. Over the past few years, machine translation has  improved by leaps and bounds, but it’s still not precise enough to be relied upon for complex conversations.

That may soon change. A new start-up called Babelverse  has an incredibly ambitious goal: putting real-time, human-powered translation at the fingertips of everyone with a mobile device like a computer or smart phone.  Basically, the service connects you with an interpreter working remotely, and is supposed to cost about the same as placing a phone call. Babelverse can also set up interpreters for conferences, saving the expense of arranging for on-site interpreters. The conference industry is the main focus of their business at the moment, and the founders expect to leverage it to provide for further expansion.

The two founders, Mayel de Borniol and Josef Dunne, got the idea for Babelverse at a Greek technology conference, as they tried to make sense of presentations in an unfamiliar language. That’s not to say that they expect the entire world to speak English- they just want people to be able to understand each other via qualified, knowledgeable interpreters. Dunne told Fast Company:

“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…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.”

The big question about Babelverse: how do you know whether or not the interpreter you get actually knows what he or she is doing? The interpreters won’t be translating for you out of the kindness of their hearts- they keep 70% of what the company makes on the call, and like eBay sellers, customers are encouraged to rate them after each transaction. So, it’s in their economic interests to do a good job, and poor interpreters should be weeded out daily quickly.

Of course, when it comes to policing behaviour and evaluating performance, systems like this are not perfect. If you’re in a situation where clarity is important, always make sure that adequate safeguards are in place to ensure you get the quality translation help you need.