Translation as a service at 1/5 the cost of traditional translators
What we do: Unbabel eliminates language barriers by combining machine and human translation for the best of both worlds —speed and accuracy at a fifth of the price of traditional translators. Unbabel's use of artificial intelligence and crowd-sourced translation help businesses expand globally.Why it's a big deal: 75% of the world does not speak English. Translation services are essential for companies that want to build a global brand, but it's difficult to find a viable solution for online content. Machines are too rigid to detect the nuances of human speech, and humans are just too slow.Unbabel solves this problem by marrying human skill with machine-efficiency. Customers send in content which is first auto-translated by Unbabel's software, then refined by two human translators before it's sent back to the customer in as little as 10 minutes. This leads to the speed of a computer translation refined by a human touch, offering customers a reliable and quick solution to building their global brand. No wonder Unbabel raised $1.5M in their seed round; they're offering a translation service unlike any other.
Bruno Silva Lead Designer @ Unbabel
Last Funded May 2014!
total funds raised
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40 pre-launch paying customers
15% weekly growth
$1.5M raised in seed round
Community of translators based worldwide
Specific products for Zendesk and Mailchimp available
And Our Major Accomplishments
Bruno was a UX and interface designer at Dezine and several other companies. He has worked as a 3D art director for Ludicartes.
This is where Unbabel wants to help. The Y Combinator-backed startup is launching today with a new kind of online translation service that aims to make it easy and affordable for a business of any size to translate all of its online content — from marketing collateral and FAQs to customer service emails, both static and dynamic.
The most important part of a startup are the people you build it with. It is the number one reason for for failure of startup, but it is also the most important ingredient in the mix. Having done a number of startups before, it is amazing what you can do when you get the right group of people together. I am really proud of my team and what we accomplished so far.
The idea for the company that hopes to break down the world’s language barriers was hatched around a fire after a day of surfing in southern Portugal. Unbabel’s founders talked about a friend’s problem: when renting a local house to international tourists, he either had to stumble through using a rusty language or hope for the best with a flawed online translator.
“It seems kind of silly that in the 21st Century we still don’t have a computer that is able to translate,” says Vasco Pedro, Unbabel co-founder and CEO. “We realized that they’re close but they aren’t quite there yet. If we just get human to help the machine complete the translation, we could make the human so much more productive and produce things that are human quality and sound natural, not robotic, and don’t have mistakes.”
Unbabel’s five founders aren’t your typical beach bums—they have two Ph.D.s in natural language processing between them, along with extensive knowledge of machine learning and artificial intelligence. That background means they’re equipped to revolutionize the growing translation industry—$34 billion was spent on language services last year, Pedro says.
How it works
Unbabel combines the speed and efficiency of machine translation with the quality of human translators. First, a text—13 languages are supported so far— is run through machine translation, then a community of both bilinguals and professional translators edit the output of the machine, making sure it sounds natural and is error-free. Translators can work on their smart phones—a key feature that will attract a large community of editors, even in parts of the world where laptops aren’t widespread, Pedro says.
“Typically the industry works in a way that the human does 100% of the work,” he says. “We use artificial intelligence to do 95% of the work, and then the human does the remaining 5% of the work. And since the human does 5% of the work, the costs go down significantly.”
Unbabel charges clients by the word with prices that are five to 10 times cheaper than direct competitor’s. Unbabel is faster, too—traditional services deliver translations in days, while Unbabel aims to finish in minutes, Pedro says. Translators are paid by the hour and get to skip common time-wasters like formatting, bidding for projects and negotiating with clients.
Currently, users can request translation through Unbabel’s website, integrate the API into their workflow or submit through email—forwarding messages to be translated to a language-specific address (i.e. email@example.com for French). Unbabel plans to roll out plug-ins for platforms like Zendesk, Evernote and MailChimp to make it even easier for companies to communicate. Another future move? Shifting pricing to a subscription model where companies pay a monthly fee for unlimited amounts of a specific translation service—so web content can be updated automatically and customer service concerns can be handled seamlessly.
The founders see endless potential for the service to help businesses enter new markets and compete globally. It’s already having an impact—language tutoring service Cambly has used Unbabel for customer service and blog launches, while recipe site Yummly has used it to translate recipes from bloggers around the world.
The Lisbon-based team envisions their service changing the way people communicate on every level—we will be able to read news from other countries, comment on Facebook posts written in other languages and even complete academic research that wasn’t possible before, says co-founder and CTO João Graça.
“We can actually make a difference in the world,” CEO Pedro says. “’If you’re not in the West, you’re much more sensitive to what different languages prevent you from doing and what information you aren’t able to access. If we can do this then it’s really something that is almost magical. It’s a little like the universal communicator from ‘Star Trek.’ You can talk to people, you can engage with folks all over the world, without even realizing they don’t speak your language. I think that’s pretty amazing.”
How do you make money?
We get paid per word. Right now it’s very simple, people pay us per word, they just pay approximately ⅕ of the going rate in the industry. So we’re 5-10 times cheaper than our direct competitors in the industry.
Going forward we’d like to take it even further and move into a subscription model. We really want to remove the thought of translation from your mind. We think we can do that by allowing the customer to pay a low monthly fee on whatever service they’re using. They’d be free to consume as much of the service as they need.
For example people don’t want to pay to localize their website. Localization is a feature debt, you change something now, send it to be translated, and by the time it gets back you’ve already changed content. What people really want is to pay $100 a month and never have to worry about it again. As they add content have that be automatically updated.
The more we decouple the amount of money people pay per translation from the amount editors make, the better for both parties involved. Right now you pay per word, and the editors get a chunk of that - it’s a standard agency model that stops everyone from scaling. We can provide a really interesting model for editors and at the same time keep costs low for our customers.
We have business model that can scale to millions of people. It is aligns us with our editors and our customers. As we become more efficient, we can pay our editors more, pass on savings to our customers, and eventually see significant profits.
How do you acquire customers?
We just launched an API that integrates with your workflow that is crucial to customer service workflow. This API is the basis of our go to market strategy and acquiring customers. For example if you have customer service, it makes sense that you’d have a Zendesk - Unbabel plugin that you could add to your account and provide service in any language seamlessly. If you do newsletters you’ll have a MailChimp plugin, we’d like to integrate into services that companies use everyday.
How do you acquire translators?
First we recognize that there are many more smartphones around the world than laptops, especially in developing countries. So we’re focused on making this process available on smartphones. But how do you get millions of people to engage with us? We think the best way to capture translators is to engage with communities that are already engaged with the online community. A percentage of those people have the skillset to translate stuff, which is basically anybody that speaks two languages. If we can build strong relationships with loved brands and communities and help them by getting their sites translated we will in turn have access to their users, helping us build a powerful channel for user acquisition.
Which metrics do you watch most closely?
There are two metrics which I think are really important. One is the amount of seconds that each person takes to translate a word. Basically below four seconds for a quality translation makes us profitable. We’ve tested this, and our averages are going down rapidly. We are confident we can get that number down to a couple of seconds or a second. At one second, it’s unbelievable for us financially.
The other metric is that we need to get millions of people involved in this process. If we want to get our speed to where we need it, we can’t just have thousands of users, we need millions. There are two key aspects to achieve this, one being smartphones and mobile the other being user acquisition.
How do translators feel about this?
Currently translators get the raw end of the deal. Most of the time they’re fixing design or layout issues, bidding for contracts, and dealing with customers and sales. In our case, they’re notified of work and are able to come in and focus on what they do best - translating.
What do you understand that others don’t get?
We’re a marriage between two fields, technology and highly human work. Previously these two fields clashed as technologists thought they could solve every problem while those focused on the human element were distrustful of the technology threat. Now we’re starting to get a breed of problem solvers that want to unify these two fields, Unbabel included. We fit into that breed that understands technology but also realizes that humans can augment technology and do work that machines can’t do. That’s one of the aspects that we understand and can capitalize on where other companies can’t. The other thing is that we have very extensive knowledge of natural language processes, artificial intelligence, and machine learning so we can focus on optimizing the process. For example selecting translators based not only on their language but also their skillset.
We understand better than anyone the application of high technology to the human problem.
Why are you the team?
Both me and one of my co-founders have PhDs in natural language processing, it’s something we really care about. It seems silly that it’s the 21st century and we still don’t have a computer to accurately translate. We realize that we’re close, but if we are able to get the human to help the machine we can make the human so much more productive. The problem fits really well with our team’s skillset, and the aha moment was when we looked more closely at the machine translation software. All the mistakes were silly wrong choices of the machine, that would be easily seen by a human. We thought the ideal thing would be to have humans selecting those mistakes, aiding the computer process directly on their smartphone. Having a history of starting companies together, we knew that we had the team to make this happen.
How fast are you compared to other solutions?
Traditional translation ranges are in days. Some newcomers translate in hours, our goal is to translate in minutes.
Who are your competitors?
There are different segments of the translation industry which in general is a really big. Last year $34 Billion was spent on translation services, mostly on traditional services with standard processes like professional translators. Some other services are competing by providing an API connected to one person translating at a time. While some larger companies are trying to build this in house because traditional methods are so expensive and inefficient for them. No one has yet combined the technological efficiency with the human element to create a fast accurate tool.
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