Babel precarity?

Member at the State of the Union address

Member at the State of the Union address (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)



This is a blog post I have been reluctant to write. I have reflected about the topic for a long time and I have not been sure it’s necessarily a good idea to be strongly for or against, actually I would prefer to silence it. But the more I see it and the more I hear about it I have decided that I must take a stance. Thank you Lionel, for helping me make up my mind.


I like technology, love technology really. I’m an early adopter of most things. My friends laugh at me, calling me a tech freak. I was an early adopter on social media, at least for ladies my age. I have new gadgets all the time. If something just has a remote practical application, I’ll be the first in line to get it. I also really like things that can make my job easier, computer in the booth (check), Facebook group for students (check), mp3 memory (check), dictionaries on computer and on the net (check). Well you get the picture…


There’s one thing I don’t like with new technology though, when or if technology  comes with deterioration of working conditions. I believe technology should help, not hamper. Screen interpreting should not mean appalling sound, non-synchronized picture and sound, or only one fixed camera showing half of the room and the rest of the speakers are only heard, not seen. Machine translation should not mean that I spend more time correcting work, than the time it would have taken translating it manually in the first place. Machine interpreting can develop into a great tool but should not replace real interpreters in complex or crucial meetings (off the cuff I can think of medical interpreting, court interpreting and legislative meetings for instance). Web streaming or web cast of my interpreting should not be taken for an original, and so forth.


One of the most worrying tendencies right now consists of the Babelverse project. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a project that aims to connect interpreters in real-time with potential clients via the Internet. When I first read about it, it sounded like a great idea – imagine how much easier it would have been to instantly get hold of say Haitian Creole interpreters in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. But such great technology should not go hand in hand with creating interpreter precarity or exclusion, right?


These guys do not want to help just out of their good heart, and I wouldn’t expect them to either. Of course you should earn money on new inventions. But when the service they sell is based on paying interpreters per minute, I get worried. Personally, I like to both plan my day, and prepare my work. This is not about being spoiled. I chose free lancing because I like the freedom and I’m used to having a long-term planning that can be anything between a year and a day. The length of my assignments range from one hour to one week usually. It does not give the same safety as being on a payroll, and I don’t expect it to, but being able to plan ahead, just a little, means that it allows me to plan things as baby sitter or picking up after school, and on the professional level I have the time to prepare.


One of the occasions when this new project was going to be demonstrated was the US President’s State of the Union speech. Now, there’s quite a difference between ad hoc relief or language brokering, and advanced conference interpreting. If I am to interpret the President’s State of the Union speech, I prepare days before. I listen to other speeches the President made, earlier State of the Union speeches, read up on different political analysts’ predictions, and also hopefully at one point I would get some sort of background notes. This is a really difficult interpreting context. A prepared speech where every word has been weighed to convey exactly the right nuance, not promise too much, not too little. It is also prepared and therefore much faster in its enunciation. American English can be extremely fast and information dense, a prepared speech is even denser and faster.


So knowing all this, would I be happy to sit at home in front of my computer (3 am in the morning my time) to wait for a possible client who would like to hear the speech translated into my language and then be paid per minute for my performance and preparation? No, I would not! I think that such a business plan is outright disrespectful of people. It takes a life time to master a foreign language far from every bi- or multilingual person makes a good interpreter. On top of that, most professional interpreters have spent years at university, and spend countless hours every year on professional development, preparation and other performance enhancing activities. Such a business plan is p-ing on these professionals.


So Babelverse guys, if this business plan is going to deliver viable, high quality interpreting you need to rethink how you hire your interpreters. I’m amazed that none of the risk capital investors have pointed this out to you. Who do they think interpreters are? Babelfish or C3POwho runs on electricity and can be turned off when not needed? Well, not just yet.



10 thoughts on “Babel precarity?

  1. No need to be reticent. Many interpreters probably share your view. But change is inevitable, and technology usually requires a trade-off. The last time the conference interpretation profession changed radically was 60 years ago when simultaneous ousted consecutive. In those days, many established interpreters, experts in consecutive, warned that simultaneous would lead to a drop in quality. But people were prepared to trade quality for time.

    The whole-day booking system may be good for quality and convenient for interpreters, but it’s been a drag on the freelance market. Why, people think, should we pay for a whole day if we only need the interpretation for an hour or two? The technology will improve. I’m waiting for some enterprising agency to introduce conference interpreting by Skype.

    • I completely agree that times are changing and that embracing new technologies are a must. My skepticism comes from the impression I get that the actual linguistic craft is forgotten behind technology and people are reduced to commodities.

    • Brian, imagine you are a fire-fighter or a surgeon, and you are actually only paid for the time you extinguish fires or perform open heart surgery. You do not earn a cent if there were no burning houses or accidents in your town. This will not work with professionals. You will probably find a “bilingual” housewife to get you a painkiller in a pharmacy or a douchebag, but it’s not serious.

  2. A translator colleague once said: The great advantage of being a freelance is the possibility to wear the morning gown all day. With Skype interpreting, this advantage will be lost.
    OT remark: Why is it that modern web design demands text in light grey instead of black? I had to copy you blog post into Word, it is way too long for reading in a fog.

  3. I have made similar points in a couple of comments after reading Babelverse’s “disruptive innovation” blog post at

    As regards your last remark on venture capitalists, there is so much money going around in tech circles these days that VCs will shower millions on any project that may perhaps stand a chance. (Nobody thought Twitter had a market when they launched in 2007)

    It appears that BV got $100k in seed funding last year, in addition to a $40K public grant the year before. This is an average amount for seed funding, but they probably had to accept a significant dilution to get it – so anything between 10-30% of the future stock is in the hands of the investors.

    That was in September last year and my impression is that BV has been limping along since.

    I would really be surprised if they managed to land series A funding. That implies some market research and the first thing they’ll discover is that the interpreting market is terribly fragmented and heterogeneous, which is not a good omen.

    Of course, both Babelverse and VCs that may end up controlling them don’t give a damn about the minions doing the actual work. But they’ll use all manners of social marketing techniques to try and convince you otherwise.

    At any rate, what this type of new-fangled intermediaries shows is that interpreters had better get organised on their own.

    • Thanks for your comment Vincent. You’re oh so right about getting organized, but as you say it’s a heterogeneous and fragmented market which unfortunately hampers organization too.
      In any case I think it’s time to debate this publicly. If we all sit in our own booth and don’t hear or exchange anything we are much easier prey for the sirens’ song.

  4. Pingback: An Open Letter to the Founders of Babelverse | The Interpreter Diaries

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