When Linguists do More than Translate or Interpret
CSOFT (#22 on our global list of the 100 largest LSPs) has banked on mobile being a driving force behind language needs. In December 2015, the company released Stepes (pronounced /'steps/), a human-powered mobile translation app designed to mobilize professional translators and Uberize the world’s bilingual population in the process. Last year, the company broadened the offering to support on-demand social media and image translation, again harnessing the power of the crowd. However, 2017 will be the year of interpreting for the company. EVP Carl Yao briefed us on CSOFT’s latest offering: on-demand interpreting from mobile devices.
This new capability is significant for several reasons:
- Stepes combines multiple desirable attributes into one package. Yao said that the service lets you access interpreters on demand, but still have the ability to schedule calls. It taps into local interpreters who are knowledgeable about the area in which customers need service. The platform is designed for both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, enabling simple one-to-one conversations where the customer often puts the interpreter on speakerphone.
- The service leverages the power of the crowd. The company relies on a pool of 100,000 professional linguists today, but CSOFT plans to tap into the much larger population of bilingual people. Many of them essentially provide language services for extra revenue in their spare time. Linguists can indicate when they are online and able to accept jobs. The Uber-style app shows you a map with the location of nearby interpreters on standby. Upon completion of each interpreting session, customers have the opportunity to rate the performance of each interpreter.
- The service will evolve the role of Interpreters into that of a multilingual concierge. You can ask a bilingual crowd member for a restaurant recommendation or tips on how to use the local public transport system. Interpreters step out of the role of linguistic mediator between two parties exchanging information to become an information source themselves.
- CSOFT is going after travelers frustrated with MT results. It sees tremendous potential when looking at the numbers of downloads of apps such as iTranslate and Google Translate. The company wants to provide a more personable service with a local helper, yet at a modest cost because its fees range from US$0.60 to 0.75 per minute.
Of course, this disruptive offering brings up a lot of questions. What about the ethical boundary for interpreters not to add to or change the message being delivered by another? How do you ensure the privacy of interpreters? How can the system’s ratings distinguish between linguists’ language skills and their knowledge of gluten-free restaurants in the area?
For its simultaneous interpreting offering, given the very limited supply of high-caliber conference interpreters, Stepes’ offerings make the service more akin to “simultaneous language support” than to traditional language services. Thus, it would be unfair to compare it to a typical U.N.-style simultaneous interpreting assignment. The issue with solutions like Stepes is that they don’t fit any existing bucket so they end up being compared to solutions they don’t seek to compete with. On the other hand, Stepes is looking to offer different levels of interpretation services down the road – such as conference simultaneous interpretation or on-site interpretation – akin to ride-sharing options such as Black or Select.
What CSOFT is doing underscores a new trend to utilize language professionals – and amateurs – for more than their linguistic skills. Increasingly, enterprises realize that translators and interpreters have a wealth of untapped – and often highly valuable – knowledge that can help engage customers in ways that no amount of content authored in another locale can. This knowledge is often more valuable than linguistic expertise and engages language professionals in more rewarding work. Automatic content enrichment (ACE) services follow a similar trend, using linguists as content curators who decide which links to promote in a locale or to customize the content thanks to their “insider knowledge” of the area. CSA Research expects to see new business models increasingly change the role and profile of linguists.
CSOFT is currently defining a new category of service, one that has previously existed only at an informal level. This service allows bilingual and bicultural individuals to act as on-demand cultural mediators and concierges, a kind of service that traditionally required hiring a local tour guide for a day. The challenge will be to maintain the quality and reliability of these services in these novel models to deliver language assistance.
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