The $34 Billion Multilingual Business Conversation

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Like many other rapidly growing, venture-backed Silicon Valley tech start-ups, Babelverse was born to address a universal problem. But Babelverse's universal problem is also a global one: dismantling communication barriers by enabling anyone in the world—tourist, tenant, corporate marketer—to access on-the-spot interpretation from any language and translation into another one.

"It's about being able to communicate as if you are native, whether you're sitting in a business meeting or at a café," said Mayel de Borniol. A native of France, he and U.K. co-founder Josef Dunne got the idea when they were having trouble communicating with their Greek landlord a few years ago.

Covering about 155 languages and 912 language combinations, 5,000 multilingual speakers power Babelverse's network, which works via Web-connected device or VoIP-enabled phone. The technology has broken down language barriers, but is language the mother tongue of disruption in the business world—the site of a good portion of Babelverse's potential profits?

Innovation or disruption, Babelverse is at the forefront of the tech-driven changes shaking up the $34 billion language-services market. Made up of multinational software companies that facilitate everything from machine translation to in-person interpreting, the industry is finally having its start-up moment.

With cloud computing driving down the cost of application development and crowdsourcing allowing user communities to tackle huge problems, a host of start-ups worldwide are challenging the status quo with sleek, Web-based solutions that drastically cut the expense and time it takes to translate any type of content—text, video, social media.

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"Mobile devices—these are the disruptors," said Don DePalma, founder of Common Sense Advisory, a research firm in Cambridge, Mass., that tracks the language-services market. "When you gang together hundreds of these devices into an intercommunicating network, all of a sudden you get all these benefits and economies of scale."

The innovations are enabling corporations to enter markets and disrupt many sectors that were previously unreachable. Language is the mother tongue of global business opportunity.

Coupa Software, a San Mateo, Calif., maker of cloud spend management solutions, wanted to test the waters in Latin America by sponsoring a trade show in Mexico City. But finding interpreters and building in-house technology to translate the intricate code of its websites, marketing materials and social media—for a project that may not result in new business—required too much time and other resources.

Instead, Coupa contracted with Cloudwords, a San Francisco-based firm whose project management software streamlines the translation process. What would have taken Coupa about three months took about four weeks with Cloudwords.

"They're taking a process that is relatively dated in the industry and turning it on its head," said Coupa CEO Rob Bernshteyn, who has three deals in the pipeline from the trade show.

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Babelverse's Dunne said his enterprise-level interpreting service costs half as much as the solutions peddled by more established competitors but draws the line there.

"I wouldn't say we're disruptive," he said. "We're innovating and offering new ways to do what they've been doing."

Cloudwords' technology is also among the first to facilitate translation crowdsourcing, or tapping a multilingual group to turn work around more quickly and cheaply than one person could. Crowdsourcing can yield better results in capturing the nuances of a particular language, which is important for businesses like music identification company Shazam, which needs consistent language to convey its brand across each of its 200 markets.

"It's really important that it's presented in the right tone and personality so we're targeting the right demographic," said David Jones, Shazam's executive vice president of marketing. Shazam, which updates its app at least once a month, uses Cloudwords to continually manage the translation of its content into 33 languages.

Making enterprises more relevant in foreign markets may not fit the classic academic definition of disruption, but Cloudwords believes in language's power to disrupt in the business world.

"If we can get you to the market 80 percent faster, then we've disrupted the way that people manage this process and engage with this broader network of individuals," said Michael Meinhardt, founder and CEO of Cloudwords. "Companies are looking for new ways to drive revenue fast, and we're enabling that."

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The advent of translation solutions for video is also becoming a key language-enabled game changer. According to a 2012 report by Cisco Systems, video traffic will be more than half of all consumer online traffic by 2016.

Marc Osofsky, senior vice president of marketing at Lionbridge Technologies, one of the largest language-service providers, said the company is seeing an explosion of video content within its client base of more than 800 global brands.

To help customers distribute their marketing, product and training videos worldwide or online in multiple languages, Lionbridge uses services from Dotsub, a New York company that uses machine-aided or human translation to translate videos into more than 520 languages almost instantly.

Lionbridge also uses technology from a competitor of Cloudwords, suggesting that the fledglings are shaking up the market and will eventually force consolidation.

"Video is a great substitute for people who don't have access to a really good distribution device, or for people who may not be literate," said DePalma at Common Sense Advisory. "If you can take that information and make it available in an audio or video stream, that puts more information into the hands of individuals."

Yet for some people who have spent years working in the interpreter industry, the onslaught of video is unwelcome. Babelverse is taking on big agencies that provide in-person services, reducing overhead by eliminating travel and per diem costs and being available for periods of time that human-based firms can't.

To a lesser degree, the company also competes with over-the-phone interpreting firms like LanguageLine Solutions, Cyracom and Language Services Associates.

"When you're talking about [replacing] the existing model, where an interpreter gets on a plane and goes to an exotic locale and gets to be, in some cases, at the shoulder of history, that's something," said Barry Slaughter Olsen, co-president of InterpretAmerica, a national forum for the interpreting profession.

Yet despite technology's promises, there are some language-barrier situations that may not ever be at the forefront of market disruption.

"If you have CEOs from different companies that don't speak the same language, do they want to have their communications in the hands of technology, or do they want a trained professional who is well-versed in everything that's going on to facilitate that? Olsen said. "These are the questions that the start-ups are starting to realize."

—Maggie Overfelt, Special to