Crowdsourcing and the Shrinking Middle

So, with the creation of new tech firm VerbalizeIT, the world has another company that says they can reduce the cost of translation and interpreting. It’s not as if the idea itself is that new. Regular LifeinLINCS readers, will remember our posts on NTT Docomo (among others), who offered a similar service. The difference this time? Well, it’s people. Instead of trusting your important call to the whims of Machine Translation and Voice Recognition, now you are to trust it to other humans.

Sounds a lot better. But wait, there’s a catch. Anyone who has read the ads VerbalizeIT have posted on translation and interpreting job websites will notice something is missing. There is zero mention of experience or qualifications. In the words of their CEO “we want to tap into the one billion people who speak a second language.”

Okay, no prizes for guessing why they think they can hit lower “price points” than their competition. By going for people who “speak another language” as opposed to those with qualifications to prove the point, they are able to get lower rates than you would ever pay for an in-person, qualified and trained professional.

For this reason, much the same can be said about their services than has been said about every other service that has attempted to overturn the industry. It will no doubt do just fine for tourist needs and perhaps (in a pinch) for trips to the pharmacy to buy medicine but I wouldn’t trust it in a doctor’s surgery or hospital. It is very doubtful whether it will make much of a dent in the business or conference markets too.

There is and always will be a need for telephone interpreting and its newer, slicker cousin, skype interpreting. However, for this to be reliable, it needs to be offered by people who actually know what they are doing. Crowdsourcing is all well and good but in places where quality matters, you will want a professional, just as it might be fine to get your Uncle Mick in to change a fuse for you but you would call in a professional to rewire your house.

There will always be a need for professionals and there will always be a need to educate people about the difference between professional translation and interpreting and the kind you can get from “bilinguals”, most of all those who want to enter the profession themselves. For students and those who one day want to go pro, services like VerbalizeIT might provide an insight into what the job involves and some handy cash but they shouldn’t be confused with the high end, quality-driven services that only fully-fledged professionals can offer.

Still, what this new startup reminds us is that there should always be room for language professionals to re-examine their own pricing structure. This might not mean dropping rates but it might mean looking at whether real efficiency savings can be made in how interpreting and translation are provided. There may be occasions where skype is a perfectly acceptable interpreting medium and where post-edited Machine Translation might be all that is required.

Lastly, while the advent of this new startup is not at all a threat or a real disturbance to the industry as a whole, it may be a sign of things to come. It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to predict that the already fragmented language industry will fragment even further, with even larger gaps between the “professional product,” where quality is king and provider-client partnerships rule the seas and the “crowdsourced zone” where price-points and speed hold sway. The middle ground, it seems is growing ever smaller. The question is, are we ready to cope with its loss?