The Portuguese company that’s translating the world

 In Technology

Since it was founded in 2013, Portuguese translation company Unbabel has shaken up the business. Using a mixture of artificial intelligence-led machine translation and human post-editing, could this company spell the end for traditional translators around the world?

The Portuguese AI-assisted translation company Unbabel has two ­essential goals: one is an ambition; the other is a mission.
It’s very simple to articulate but, like many revolutionary ideas, more complicated to enact. “Our mission is to get to a point where anyone in the world can understand and be understood in any language,” says Unbabel CEO Vasco Pedro with an air of self-confidence that belies his youthful appearance.
And the goal? “To translate 25% of all the world’s digital customer service interactions,” he says, adding: “How do we get to a point where we enable all the companies in the world to provide amazing customer service independent of the language and that wherever you are as a customer, you still get great customer service even if you don’t speak a word of English?”
Vasco Pedro says he thinks of both the company’s mission and ambition like NASA, which has always had great and ambitious visions but does things in ­sequenced steps. For Unbabel, right now the main focus is providing excellent customer service.
“Even in Portugal, which is a fairly well-developed country, if a customer wants to contact British Airways, they can do that nine to five, Monday to ­Friday. But with some companies in the US, now there is 24/7 service. Even small differences like that shouldn’t exist. There’s obviously a customer ­service gap,” he points out.
The genius behind Unbabel says service should be seamless and that for Unbabel’s customers the issue is not ­really about translation. Translation is an enabler of communication and Unbabel ensures that their agents can handle 28 languages, independent of who they are, where they are from and where they are. It does this through integration with the tools that they use.
“We function in the background and make sure that we can communicate. It should be irrelevant to you that I am speaking Portuguese, and it should be ­irrelevant to me whatever language you are speaking. Unbabel is there to ensure that, regardless of language, I can interact with you,” he asserts.

Machine translation
From the beginning, Unbabel has ­developed its natural language processing (NLP) platform, which combines neural machine translation with quality algorithms and a network of thousands of translators worldwide providing qua­lity translations at a competitive cost.
It was obvious to both Vasco Pedro (CEO) and João Graça (CTO), who have PhDs in Natural Language Processing, that neither machine translation, such as products provided by Google Translate, nor human translation alone would ­significantly help business in real time in a multilingual world.
“The problem with machine translation is that it’s good at simple, repetitive and mundane tasks but can’t handle more sophisticated language with ­nuance and context,” explains Vasco Pedro. But at the same time, they ­realised that you couldn’t get scale with human translation.

The end of translators?
But does Vasco Pedro think the traditional contemporary translation business model that has developed since the late 1990s, involving translators using CAT tools and translation memories, will soon become a thing of the past?
“I do think there is a transformation going on in the translation space, which is an offshoot and consequence of the larger transformation happening across the world and which will ultimately lead AI super-powering humans and enabling machines to do the things they couldn’t do before,” he ponders.
“But the interesting and non-repetitive content that requires nuance and understanding of emotions, cultural refe­rences and philosophy will still need to be done by humans.”

Scaling up
Last year was a good one for Unbabel. In January, it managed to attract US$23 million (€19.2 million) of investment from venture capital companies.
Among the investors were Scale ­Venture Partners, Notion, Microsoft Ventures, Salesforce Ventures and Samsung Next as well as Caixa Capital and FundersClub.
Unbabel plans to use the cash for both international expansion into e-commerce and product development.
“We’re not a unicorn yet. Our Series A investment was led by Notion Capital and our Series B by Scale Venture Partners in Silicon Valley. They are both amazing investors in the areas they specialise in. Notion are the best investors for Series A B2B for Enterprise Cloud and SaaS (Software as a Service) startups, with a great record of taking companies at our stage and scaling them up,” says Vasco Pedro.
Every quarter brings aggressive and ambitious goals and the CEO says these investors have a fundamental belief in what Unbabel is doing.
“They understand that we have the potential to have a huge impact, not just on customer service but on companies focusing on cross-border trade, helping them interact and communicate in ­multiple cross-border markets so that transactions are smooth and seamless,” he explains.

A potential unicorn?
Since it was set up in 2013, Unbabel has been a regular feature at international conferences, in newspaper and magazine articles, and trade fairs around the world as one of the potential new unicorns – a company that achieves around US$1 billion of investment.
Today its clients feature a number of online household names in the travel and tourism sector like, easyJet and Maclaren. Other clients ­include Oculus VR, Buzzfeed, Evernote, Rovio, Pinterest and Trello.
With around 55,000 freelance translators worldwide translating into 28 ­languages, Unbabel’s initial ambition was to reach 70% of internet users who didn’t speak English either as a first or second language.
“Sooner or later we’ll need a fresh injection of capital investment because we’re growing so quickly and recruiting all the time to meet client demand,” stresses Vasco Pedro, who says the company currently has 120 key clients in travel, e-commerce, gaming and techno­logy, growing between 600% and 1000% on revenue within a few years and now translating more than a million-and-a-half words per day.

Expanding to San Francisco
Although based in Lisbon, Unbabel realised it needed to be close to its main clients, partners and investors and that meant opening an office in San Francisco, California.
“Over 50% of our business was in the United States, so it made sense for us to be close to our customers and investors in Silicon Valley. Besides, a lot of the ­decisions around what new technology gets adopted happens there,” explains Vasco Pedro.
Unbabel’s customers tend to be B2C companies – digital companies in which users pay for the service and so these companies need to provide good customer service in different languages. These include gaming companies from which it gets a lot of business.
“Digital business is an important area, especially SaaS companies which don’t have a physical presence in overseas markets and need to provide virtually real time translation for those markets,” he says dropping client names and partners such as Salesforce, Zendesk, Microsoft and Ecocentrics.
However, Unbabel’s expansion will likely spread to Asia and its CEO ­explains that he has plans to open an ­office somewhere there to “explore the market”.

Going forward
So how does Unbabel’s CEO see the future for his company?
“Right now, translation works on a project basis. I don’t want that. We’re ­living in a world where communication happens in a constant way; think of ­frequently asked questions (FAQ) on a website. Typically, they are treated as projects that are sent to an agency, translated and then edited.
Vasco Pedo says that, today, website documents are evolving and being ­updated constantly with new features when the website changes. He wants to develop and incorporate a continuous translation process in there.
“More and more companies rely on videos. But, how do you create a workflow in the pipeline where translation is not a stumbling block for that, but where you can have captions in eight or 10 languages to broadcast content globally?” he asks.
Vasco Pedro points out that translation agencies typically take four days now to turnaround, which doesn’t work when producing several projects a week. “The turnover time needs to be faster and the translation needs to be embedded in the tool,” he says.
“We are currently dealing with content that is ‘low-hanging fruit’ with high impact and high velocity turnaround. At some later stage, we will need to address this problem.”
Unbabel is also looking at voice morphing whereby the customer service provider’s voice tone and speech patterns are kept the same but in a different language.
“The problem is doing that in real time because machine translation isn’t quite there yet. You cannot open a bank account using Google Translate. You just can’t! This is why the human involvement is so critical,” he explains.
At present, Unbabel can translate emails within 10 minutes and provides near-real-time response in Live Chat.
And the next aim? “Over the next few years, we want to translate 25% of all the world’s customer service transactions.”
“Right now, our competitors are companies that hire people who speak the language. Our way of doing customer service is different and new. If you pay a translator US$10 to translate an email, it’s not really cost effective for the client.
“But if you scale up and it costs you US$1, then the price equation changes and it is profitable. Suddenly, instead of having a very expensive team of translators in Germany supporting your market there, you can move your teams around the world and support that market from wherever,” Vasco Pedro reflects.
The result is 24/7 support. That team will be able to support other markets, so you can concentrate your resources and help to optimise them in that way.
So, will Vasco Pedro and Unbabel succeed in that 25% goal? He laughs. “You’ll have to wait and see!”