‘The Uber of translation services’: China’s Stepes wants to corner U$38 mln language services industry with app for freelancers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 3:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 3:05pm

Beijing-based start-up Stepes is aiming to revolutionise the US$38 million language services industry with its chat-based translation app that allows almost any multilingual person with a smartphone to become a translator and earn income.

Stepes founder Carl Yao, who launched the app in December, said he wants his company to become the “Uber of translation services”. He believes the translation industry is ripe for disruption.

“There are only 250,000 professional translators who service the world’s demand for translation, but there are over 3.65 billion people who are able to speak more than one language,” Yao told the South China Morning Post by phone on Thursday.

“There’s a huge imbalance here,” he added.

“We think Stepes’ mobile-based translation will make translation ... mainstream, so that everybody can participate and translate.”

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Stepes draws its name from the Eurasian steppes, vast swathes of grassland between Europe and Asia. This area is hailed as the birthplace of about 400 languages, said Yao.

He seems to have picked a ripe market. The global industry for language services was valued at US$38 million in 2015 and is forecast to hit US$47 billion by 2018, according to statistics portal Statista.

“By allowing translation to be easily accessible, we’ll be able to reduce translation costs so that more businesses are able to translate and localise,” said Yao, adding that many SMEs do not localise their content because of the high costs of translation services today.

WATCH: Why choose Stepes?

Any user of the Stepes app who speaks at least two languages is able to sign up for an account and choose an area of expertise, such as translating for educational or financial services.

Companies can upload their document and specify which language they want it translated into. Stepes then acts as a matchmaker.

Translators can choose to translate text line-by-line on the mobile app or using their PC. The app and website also support speech-to-text function, so users can translate without having to type.

“Most translation services are desktop-based, but with the Stepes mobile app, users can translate anytime, anywhere as long as they have a smartphone,” said Yao.

To ensure the quality of translation remains high, clients rate projects once they are finished.

“We screen all of our translators and run tests on them, and our review system ensures accountability. Every translator is ranked after each project, only the best translators will stay,” Yao said.

Stepes charges clients on a per-word basis, with rates ranging from US$0.10 to $0.16 per word.

Translators are paid between US$0.05 and US$0.13 per word, depending on the languages used.

Stepes already has 50,000 translators in its database, many courtesy of its investor CSoft, a localisation and translation company in Beijing.

Yao said the company plans to increase the number of languages available to 250 by the end of 2016.

“Our ultimate vision is to help the world communicate,” said Yao.

But experts in translation stress that being multilingual does not necessarily equate to being a good translator.

Duncan Poupard, a lecturer in the department of translation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said people who speak several languages may still “struggle to handle more complex tasks” like translating an employment contract or drug label.

Some are concerned that companies like Stepes may undermine the earning potential of translation professionals.

“While we should welcome technological advances that make the translation process more convenient, we should be wary of developments that may prove to be the next step in a race to the bottom for the industry, where average rates are cut as swathes of essentially unqualified translators are paid peanuts,” said Poupard.