A Disservice to the Translation/Interpretation Profession on National TV

The TV show Shark Tank is among one of our favorites.  It is a free, weekly education in modern business.

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It is fun to learn from the creativity and entrepreneurship of the contestants and sharks.  It is not often that a familiar business comes into the Shark Tank.

A few months ago, however, one company's presentation and subsequent discussion on the business of translation made us want to turn off the TV in disgust.

The following is a deconstruction of the VerbalizeIt presentation:

To begin, Erica the "translator" stands to the side and after the VerbalizeIt co-founders speak, she begins her "translation" by stating "They are the co-founders..."

Stop it right there.

First of all, since she is speaking (and not writing), what she is actually doing is interpreting, not "translating" as everyone goes on to refer to her role (and the company's business) throughout the presentation.  Secondly, any respectable, professional interpreter recognizes her statement as an amateurish mistake.  Professional interpreters know better than to interpret in the third person.

Ryan Frankel, the CEO of VerbalizeIt states: "In case you haven't figured it out, Erica is a translator".  No, she is not! She was performing the duties of an interpreter.

As an investor, we would be hard-pressed to invest in a company whose founders have a fundamental misunderstanding of the very business they purport to promote and represent.

RJ

During the ensuing discussion, both the presenters and the sharks discuss the merits of machine translation (MT). Here is where the industry terms become all the more important.

Frankel states that for the purposes of his business "machine translation does not work".  He is right. MT refers to translation, not live interpretation.

GT

The following text is the explanation of how Google Translate works (emphasis added):

When Google Translate generates a translation, it looks for patterns in hundreds of millions of documents to help decide on the best translation for you. By detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators, Google Translate can make intelligent guesses as to what an appropriate translation should be. This process of seeking patterns in large amounts of text is called "statistical machine translation". Since the translations are generated by machines, not all translation will be perfect.

Granted, not all translations by humans will be perfect either. Nevertheless, we would also be hard-pressed to accept a translator to provide us with an "intelligent guess" as a product when a better alternative is available.

Mr. Frankel's statement is immediately challenged by one of the sharks, Mark Cuban.  Mr. Cuban defends MT by making a good point regarding interpreters' expertise in a particular field. Nevertheless, an experienced interpreter in a specific field is preferable to an "intelligent guess" on a source text.

MC

Again, we are talking about apples and oranges.  MT addresses the translation of documents, not the interpretation of a live conversation between two or more parties.

At this point, it is our turn to grill Mr. Cuban.  A self-avowed "tech guru", our questions to Mr. Cuban (who is an investor in MT) would be as follows:

  • Are you fluent in another language?
  • If not, how are you able to fully understand the intricacies of MT as it relates to a different language?

As the negotiations continue, another shark, Kevin O'Leary rightly identifies that Mark Cuban investing in the MT business means that he is in another business altogether. This knowledge and offering the most favorable terms eventually land him a deal with the VerbalizeIt founders.

KO

Had we been in that boardroom, we would have extended three chances to the VerbalizeIt founders to rightly identify their business. Undoubtedly, they would have responded "translation" in every instance.  That would have spelled our refusal to do the deal because, again, their business as presented was interpretation, not translation.

Upon securing a deal with Mr. O'Leary, Kunal Sarda, COO and co-founder states "In the end it wasn't about the 5%, but Mr. Wonderful [O'Leary] showed that he really understands what our business is about."  Even to this day, a closer inspection of the VerbalizeIt website spells that the founders still do not understand their business.  They still refer to their interpreters as "translators."

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In a business that hinges around the meaning of words and sentences, VerbalizeIt just does not seem to get it.