DEMO 2008 pick: Instant language translation

January 29, 2008: 5:09 PM ET

By Michael V. Copeland

PALM DESERT, Calif. -- I'm down in Palm Desert, a long iron from Palm Springs, for DEMO, the twice-a-year startup beauty pageant (or horror show depending on how your six-minute presentation goes). DEMO, as the name suggests, is all about introducing mind-blowing new technologies and services. Not that every company succeeds in causing this hardened tech audience to elicit a collective "wow," but already there have been a handful who've succeeded.

Online translation service SpeakLike is one. The New York-based service uses an instant messaging approach to offer live translation services while you chat. So imagine you have a colleague or a friend in Madrid. You both are logged into the service, in the same way that you might connect to Skype. Using the SpeakLike window you type a message in English, which is translated instantaneously into Spanish for your friend. His response, written in Spanish, is then translated into English. Each side of the chat views the conversation in the language they are most comfortable with using.

So far so good, but the "wow" factor came when SpeakLike CEO Sanford Cohen introduced a Chinese speaker to the mix. He had a three-way chat going simultaneously in Chinese (characters, not Pinyin), English and Spanish. The key to it working well, is that SpeakLike does its translation via not only machines, the sort of thing that Google Translate and other web-based services do, but adds a layer of real human translators to the mix which smooths out the often clunky and too literal results from machine translators. Think of it as a general session of the United Nations happening in your Web browser for 10 cents a message.

The company is getting ready to launch an invitation-only beta for the service offering translation (during limited hours) in English, Spanish and Chinese. It will add other languages and longer hours as it ramps up, both with venture capital funding and its network of translators. Ultimately Cohen envisions a global network of freelance translators, students or at-home parents with an extra hour here and there, to offer 24/7 translation in a multitude of languages and areas of expertise, say, health care or engineering.

The utility of the service is clear, says Dan Ahn, managing director with Woodside Fund a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. "Say you have an engineering team in India, a manufacturing team in China and your marketing in Europe and the U.S.," Ahn says. "If everyone needs to discuss a problem, the way it happens now is you find the person with the best English, which is usually not that good, and everyone goes through these long, often inaccurate, conference calls. This gets rid of that, and lets the key people who need to communicate instant message directly via whatever language they speak."

As SpeakLike gets rolling, the machine translation should also get better and better, says Cohen. "It's mostly human translation for now," he says. "But the algorithms will learn, and machine translation will account for much more of the work."

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Michael Copeland
Michael Copeland

Michael V. Copeland joined FORTUNE as a senior writer in September 2007. Copeland has covered everything from electric cars to e-readers. He is a creator of Tech Mate, an irreverent video series in which he debates (and skewers) digital issues of the day. Before joining FORTUNE, Copeland was a senior writer at Business 2.0. Copeland graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

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