Unbabel Combines Machine and Human Translation

For many companies, translation is seen as an either-or proposition: Either you have humans performing translations, or you accept what a machine provides. But a Portugal-based start-up called Unbabel thinks it can provide better translations more cost-efficiently by offering the best of both worlds.

Unbabel's process is simple: The company takes each translation request, runs it through machine translation, and provides the output to human editors who polish it up as and where appropriate. The result: According to Unbabel, the quality of a human translation at a much lower cost. As Unbabel CEO Vasco Calais Pedro explained to me, "A number of studies show that post-editing machine-translated texts increase quality when compared to translating from scratch."

Today, Unbabel has more than 1,800 editors and supports a number of source and target languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Editors interact with Unbabel through a mobile app and are paid for each translation task they complete. To help ensure quality, every machine translation is sent to at least three human editors. To further ensure quality, Unbabel tests translators and sends paid translation tasks only to its top translators, who amount to slightly more than 10% of Unbabel's total labor pool.

Currently, Unbabel's primary mode of delivery is through its Web site and e-mail, but the company is beta testing an API that it believes will be a big part of its success. Using Unbabel's JSON REST API, companies can build applications that obtain translations programmatically at a cost of just one euro cent per word.

Unbabel's translation request API Endpoint accepts the text to be translated and the target language. Unbabel's API will also accept optional parameters, such as tone, a list of topics with which the text is associated, and instructions for editors. These can provide information and context for editors that help ensure a quality translation. For instance, the tone parameter allows the requester to specify whether a translation should be informal or formal, friendly or business style.

Once a translation has been completed, the translated text is posted to a Callback URL specified in the original API Request. If the translation delivered is not acceptable for any reason, Unbabel clients have 48 hours to report the translation.

In addition to handling individual and bulk translation requests, Unbabel's API features endpoints for checking the status of a translation request, obtaining a translation history, and getting the supported values for certain translation request parameters. In the near future, an endpoint for reporting unacceptable translations will be added as well.

Disruptive Pricing

APIs are already a fixture in the translation market. Machine translation is available through APIs offered by Bing and Google, and a number of human translation services, such as One Hour Translation, which have APIs of their own. But if machine translation isn't reliable enough, and human translation is cost prohibitive for certain applications, Unbabel's hybrid model might have the ability to disrupt the establishment.

According to Unbabel's Pedro, Unbabel's pricing makes his company's offering about ten times less expensive than the average cost of human translation, allowing companies to translate content -- such as user-generated content from forums, wikis, and social networks -- that was unlikely to be translated into other languages previously. "We are unlocking an entire new market of content that is now possible to translate, effectively making all content more accessible," Pedro told me. The goal: to help create "a future where all the Web’s content will be available in multiple languages."

Thus far, the company says it has been thrilled with the initial response to its offering. Dozens of developers signed up to use the API on the day it was launched, and Unbabel is in talks with several large companies that are interested in using it internally. "We are seeing use cases that range from translation offered directly in app to direct Integration into translation management systems," Pedro stated.

The Unbabel API joins 79 Translation APIs in the ProgrammableWeb directory. Check out Adam DuVander's recent coverage to learn more about other offerings.

Be sure to read the next Media article: Beats Music Seeks Market Share with API