Babelverse, a new company that uses online technology and mobile apps to create a worldwide real-time translation service, has secured funding from the technology investment company 500 Startups. The funding will hopefully bring the service out of the conferences where it has been demonstrated, and into the hands of everyday users.
Babelverse is both an app and a service, which uses smartphones to connect translators to people who need translation. As demonstrated at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, Babelverse has registered a vast network of interpreters and translators all over the world, noting the languages they speak, the dialects and accents they understand, and their hours of availability. A user can then open the app, request translation by source and target language, and be connected by phone to the first available translator. Essentially, it asks you what languages you need, finds someone who speaks them, and then calls them up so you can talk.
A charming man-on-the-street video shows a German man walking into a Greek drugstore, firing up Babelverse, and instantly being connected with a translator on the other side of the world. He explains to the translator what he needs, and then hands the phone to the bemused pharmacist, who gets native-language explanation of what the customer wants, with plenty of opportunity to ask both the customer and the translator questions for clarification. It’s a charming slice-of-life portrayal of how this app could make life abroad easier, but Babelverse has already been put to more consequential uses, when the company assembled a volunteer translation network to provide service to aid teams, reporters, and NGOs during the Japanese tsunami.
Babelverse proudly eschews machine translation, plainly stating its principles with the slogan: “People Vs. Robots: Which side are you on?” Company founder Mayel De Borniol even showed up in the comments section of a Digital Trends article to scorn Microsoft’s translation software, boasting that “We rely on people instead of machines, to preserve the quality, context, cultural relevance, tone and emotion of the spoken word.”
But despite De Borniol’s not-unjustified contempt for a computer’s ability to translate spoken language, there’s a reason his company is partnered with technology site TechCrunch (besides De Bornoil’s endearingly geeky citations of Stranger In A Strange Land as inspiration). Babelverse works on the same principle as Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk,” or the “ractors” in The Diamond Age: rather than using technology to provide services, it uses technology to make it easier for humans to serve each other.
Babelverse may be motivated by pessimism about computers’ language processing, but it would be unimaginable in a work without large-scale databases and mobile telecommunications technology. With all those things in place, information technology can do what it does best: make people more productive. What’s more, the company is consciously working to make their productivity gains benefit workers instead of undercut them, proudly touting their payment parameters as a means of avoiding “a bid to the bottom.” The company’s earnest, optimistic, delightfully cosmopolitan blog makes very clear that it wants to use technology to empower people rather than replace them.
Right now, Babelverse is still operating as a closed beta, available only in environments that the company carefully selects. But with significant startup cash secured, it’s only a matter of time before the Babelverse app becomes as common on travelers’ phones as a currency converter and a phrasebook, and a lot more likable than either.
Babelfish diagram by Rod Lord