Online Translation Service Combines Best of Humans and Robots

Even with today’s fast-moving technology and a more connected global culture, online translation services haven’t made much progress over the years.

Anyone who’s tried to use Google translate for anything more than a quick word or phrase will tell you that the results are serviceable at best and generally robotic. There are several translation companies trying to take things to the next level, but Unbabel – a company with headquarters in both San Francicso and Portugal – is leading the way by bringing robots and humans together.

They even have their own robot mascot, Marvin, who was created to provide feedback for their human editors.

Vasco Pedro, Unbabel’s human CEO, told us how Unbabel came to be.

“Both me and one of my cofounders had our PhD in language technologies, so language related problems were always interesting to us. The four cofounders were actually on a surfing trip [as in water, not Web] with Sophia, now my fifth cofounder. We started getting a lot of friends that told us they wanted to rent out their houses in the south of Portugal, and lots of people from around the world were contacting them. With the right translation, they’d be able to communicate better with potential renters,” Pedro says.

Pedro and his four cofounders have recently raised $1.5 million in capital to keep up with the company’s rapid sales growth, which is experiencing a 15% increase per week. Currently, Unbabel has 14 employees (including the five cofounders) and 160 paying customers.

What makes Unbabel stand out is their unique approach to online translation. Artificial intelligence like Google translate isn’t perfect while human-only translation is both timely and costly. Pedro’s company combines the best of both worlds.

“Google translate is about 90% there, which is still pretty impressive. But it’s not good enough,” he explains. “What hasn’t been done successfully is really improving the process of translation. Human effort is very expensive.”

When speaking about the current state of online translation, Pedro has an analogy he likes to bring up, comparing the process to having shoes made before the industrial revolution. “Depending on the shoemaker, you may have bad shoes… some days he may be sick and not feeling well. The best translator in the world may not produce the best quality on a given day, on a given topic,” he says.

Unbabel is trying to change the way the process happens. In a nutshell, their translation process goes as follows: text comes in, it’s machine translated, segmented into little chunks, and edited by two or more people. The second editor edits the output of the first so text keeps improving.

“We are making it faster, more affordable because each human has much less effort required, and we’re doing this by creating a way to automatically understand the quality of the work after someone does it,” Pedro says. Unbabel has a growing community of editors that are working their way up to being paid for their work.

Marvin, the Unbabel robot mascot that takes up a prominent place in their office, provides automatic feedback to help editors graduate from an unpaid level to a paid level. The robot looks at completed translations and assigns a score to gauge how the editor is doing.

Unbabel’s investors include Matrix Partners and Google Ventures. They also recently launched the beta version of its Zendesk plugin that allows customer service representatives to support customers in any language.

In two years, the company hopes to be in a position to integrate all their customers’ verticals to expand internationally and have all the services required to do so at the click of a button.