Online translation services, such as Google Translate, have a come a long way. Even so, when you're traveling and get into a pickle or working with international customers and can't afford even a hint of miscommunication, humans still beat machines hands down--or at least so say the guys running VerbalizeIt.

The company, which is a TechStars Boulder alumnus, pairs folks who need translation help with live multilingual people around the world via a smartphone app. It's slick--after downloading the app you just create an account, tell VerbalizeIt what language you want translated into another and it gives you a phone number to call. Call it, and an automated voice will tell you it's connecting you with a translator. Voilà--the next thing you know, you're on the line with someone.

What's cool is VerbalizeIt gives every user five free minutes to try it out. I told the app I needed English to Spanish translation and the woman who took my call told me most people put her on speaker so she can interact with whomever the user is trying to communicate with.

The Backstory

VerbalizeIt founders Ryan Frankel and Kunal Sarda actually came up with the idea after harrowing experiences abroad. Frankel was in China when he became ill and couldn't make a pharmacist understand what medication he needed. And Sarda was pick pocketed and couldn't pay for a cab ride resulting in an irate Parisian cabbie who kicked him to the curb.

The New York-based start-up closed $1.5 million in seed financing last fall and says it has created more than 3,000 jobs around the world and has established partnerships with Skype and TripLingo.

"Machine translation works fairly well for text-to-text translation, but anytime you introduce voice into the mix, machines are still light years away from delivering a reliable solution," Frankel says. "Machines rarely get it right in a perfect scenario, let alone when you introduce different dialects, background noise, and the unspoken, such as emotion, customers, and local terminology."

Plans start at $5 for five minutes of translation up to $99 for 200 minutes.

For businesses that have ongoing translation needs VerbalizeIt offers rates according to volume and the type of solution. You can get live interpretation for $1.00 to $1.50 a minute, non-live document translation for $.07 to $.09 a minute, as well as audio translation for $2.50 to $3.50 a minute and video translation and subtitling for $1.30 to $2.50 a minute, depending on the language.

As for quality, Frankel tells me anybody who wants to do translation work for VerbalizeIt has to pass an exam not only based on language proficiency but also within functional areas of expertise. Not only that, every time you use a translator you're asked to give feedback regarding how well he or she performed. The highest rated translators receive the most opportunities to translate.

The Competition

One thing is certain, crowdsourced translation services are burgeoning. Gengo is another app that puts people in touch with translators who will convert written text into various languages--it boasts companies such as YouTube, Alibaba and Path as its customers.

You might also check out Babelverse, which last year was a TechCrunch Disrupt finalist and received funding from 500 Startups, among other awards.

"While there sure is a huge unmet need to break the language barrier in simple day-to-day situations where a bilingual can be very helpful, there are also many more critical or business cases where a professional linguist is essential," says Babelverse co-founder Josef Dunne.

Dunne says he's most proud of the fact that the multilingual translators receive a 70 percent revenue share. "Our mission, besides making interpretation affordable to more people, is for interpreters to receive a fair source of income," he says.

It might be a big differentiator, at least in the long haul when it comes to attracting talent. VerbalizeIt only pays novice translators $0.12 a minute for live over-the-phone interpretation. Top-performing translators with functional expertise make $19.80 per hour for live interpretation, which is only $0.33 a minute or $1.65 for five minutes.

In contrast, Babelverse pays its interpreters according to the tier of service, languages involved, and average cost of living in the countries where they are most spoken.

As an example, Dunne says an experienced bilingual interpreting a 10-minute informal conversation over the phone would receive approximately $5.80 with the user paying about $8.30. A professional interpreter would receive about $10 of the $14.30 the user would pay.

That said, Babelverse only has two solutions available now, both in public beta--simultaneous interpretation of conferences or live video. As examples, Dunne says the company's members have served the U.S. Senate as well as interpreted President Obama's State of the Union address last year.

The company, which has 5,000 members that speak 150 languages, has other products in the works, including a mobile app currently in private beta that puts people in touch with interpreters on-demand.

Good to Know

Want to know the difference between translation and interpretation? Dunne says it's an important distinction: "Interpreters listen to spoken language and translate orally, while translators work on written text," according to the Babelverse website.

Published on: Feb 27, 2013
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