An Open Letter to the Founders of Babelverse

Dear Josef and Mayel,

You’re probably wondering why I have been ignoring your attempts to get in touch with me lately. After all, in the past we’ve exchanged tweets, corresponded by email and even skyped. But you will have undoubtedly noticed that I have not been responding to any of your overtures lately, and for that I think you deserve an explanation.

I’ve decided to give it in the form of an open letter, because I think my readers have a right to hear what I am about to say. Also, like my colleague Elisabet Tiselius states in her latest blog post to you, I feel these sorts of discussions are best held in the public domain, where everybody can benefit from the exchange and contribute to it if they wish. They should not be hidden away in private Skype chats.

But before I get started, let me just make one thing perfectly clear. My views on Babelverse have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that you represent a tech startup that promises to “disrupt” my industry. With all of the talk going around lately about the benefits of disruption and the dangers of stagnation, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that one can be very much in favor of innovation (which I most certainly am) while harbouring reservations about those who claim to offer this innovation. In other words, professional interpreters have every right to question your approach – and this includes your technology – without being immediately branded Luddites or characterized as crotchety old grannies who feel that this business hasn’t been the same since IBM came up with those newfangled Hush-A-Phone thingees back in 1927.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I feel like I can explain why I don’t consider your company a valid interlocutor in my work to further my chosen profession. Basically, it can be summed up in a few words: integrity, transparency, professionalism and mutual trust. I come into contact with a lot of people in my professional and personal wanderings, and long ago I decided that if they couldn’t meet these few basic requirements, then I would not waste my time with them. Let’s look now at my interactions with Babelverse in the past few months and see how you measure up.

definition of Babel

It all started with what the more generous among us might construe as a misrepresentation of the facts. When, last September, I tweeted my doubts about the working conditions you were offering, you immediately replied that you had “hundreds of pro interpreters on board, including aiic & eu terps”. The wording of this tweet set the alarm bells ringing. There are, in total, only a few thousand interpreters in the world who meet that description, many of whom are trusted contacts of mine. I found hard to imagine that I had somehow missed the news that “hundreds” of us had already discovered the existence of an as-yet largely unknown tech startup and had rushed to offer our services.

Now, you didn’t actually say that your hundreds of interpreters were all AIIC members or EU-accredited. Indeed, with the wording you used, it would suffice for two or three of us to have signed up to make your claim true. And as a matter of fact, I had actually heard from one or two colleagues who had told me that they had gone into your database in order to have a look around (they had been confused by the lack of information on the public site and had assumed that information on rates and working conditions would be provided in the members-only pages). But none of them had done any work for you yet.

I have to say that this last bit didn’t surprise me. According to the little information which was available on the Babelverse website at the time (which has since disappeared – more on that in a bit), the working conditions you were offering clearly contravened AIIC’s professional standards: there were three-hour simultaneous assignments being allocated to single interpreters working alone, and payment was to be based on actual mike time. No professional conference interpreter in their right mind, AIIC member or not, would ever consent to those conditions.

But back to my point. Soon after our Twitter exchange, you contacted me and offered to discuss the matter further on Skype (typical damage control tactic, by the way: get the criticisms off the social media and into the private domain). Then, during our Skype chat, when I asked you to put your money where your mouth is and show me your list of hundreds of AIIC and EU interpreters, you freely admitted that you didn’t have them. You went on to explain in your own defense that you had felt upset by my comments and had dashed off your tweet in the heat of the moment. Fair enough, but explaining that you have done something “in self-defense” and without premeditation doesn’t make your actions any less suspicious.

So much for integrity. Let’s talk about transparency for a moment. I think Elisabet has already very effectively made the point that you are not exactly serving transparency when you refuse to give references or reveal who your “expert interpreting consultants” are. I asked you this during our Skype chat as well, but you declined to reveal your consultants’ names, claiming this information was confidential. I ask you, what professional consultant offers his or her services in secret? Assuming they exist, what do they have to be ashamed of? If these consultants truly are helping you to shift the interpreting paradigm through disruptive innovation, they should be shouting it from the rooftops, not hushing it all up.

The point has also been made by others that there is absolutely no way to access your database of interpreters to see who’s in it. You claim on your page that the interpreter profiles are public, but I have looked everywhere and I can’t find any public profile except that of your Global Community Ambassador Laura. It is very nice to see that she speaks Spanish with a Buenos Aires accent and offers expertise in everything from Behavioral Science to Contract Law, but what I don’t see is if she – and the rest of your interpreters, for that matter – belongs to a professional association and/or has any recognized interpreting accreditations or other externally verifiable credentials to back up her claims.

What most worries me in terms of transparency, however, is something I just happened to notice the other day. You claim to want to engage with industry players, and have a plethora of forms and buttons on your website purporting to facilitate just that. And yet in the one place where a debate seemed to be emerging last fall – your FAQ forum – something seems to have happened. All of the threads that I saw building there last fall have now mysteriously disappeared. There weren’t many, admittedly, but there were a couple of interesting points being made. So where has it all gone? The only thing I can find on the FAQ page these days are five questions asked by Josef. Now that’s engagement.

I am pleased to say that in a rare show of prescience, I decided to take screenshots of some of the more interesting comments that were to be found on your FAQ page back then. I still have those screenshots, and I’d like to share just a few quotes from them with readers here:

“I am utterly confused as to how Babelverse works”

“unless you’re outright transparent about how Babelverse works, less and less (sic) professionals will put all their info in not knowing what comes next”

“not very good business practices, to expect professionals to accept work without knowing what they’ll be paid”

“you pay by the minute and your hourly rate is very low”

“there’s no training platform to be seen”

“sweatshop labor”

To be fair, I should say that there were a few comments on the forum made by interpreters siding with Babelverse. This one is my favorite:

“I interpret all day long with only a few min break to drink water. Isn’t that what I’m being paid for?”

I should also say that while not all of these questions received answers, there were a few that you replied to, mostly to say that Babelverse was in beta phase, that it was a work in progress, and that it would all be sorted out sooner or later. Fine, that’s fair enough. So why is there is no trace of these exchanges that I can point my readers to? How has purging your FAQ forum served transparency and improved your engagement with the industry? If those forum threads are still around, I challenge you to make them public again* so that my readers can have a look for themselves, and contribute their own views to the debate, if they are so inclined. Of course, they can do that here on my blog, too, and I would encourage them to do so. You two should also feel free to make comments on this page, of course. I’d like to hear what you have to say in response to this post. Please don’t expect me to react to any emails or DMs, though. I think I’ve made it clear enough why.

Now, I see that this post is getting quite long and I haven’t even started talking about professionalism and mutual trust, the other two measures of credibility that I mentioned at the start. But maybe I should leave it at this for now, and just point readers wanting to read more to the excellent comments made by my esteemed colleagues Vincent Buck and Marta Piera Marin (on the Babelverse site and InterpretAmerica’s blog) and Elisabet Tiselius (in her first and second posts on this topic). Like me, these people are both professional interpreters and enthusiastic adopters of technology. They also happen to know this industry inside out. I subscribe in full to all of the points they have made.

Depending on what happens next, I may decide to share with readers what I had intended to write in the second half of this post. For now, I would just like to leave you with a quote that I recently came across on the Twitter timeline of your Global Community Ambassador (of all places):

“Never lie to someone who trusts you, and never trust someone who lies to you”.

Disruptively yours,

Michelle

*The FAQ forum was made public again shortly after this post was published. You can find the link in the comments section.