The shortest-lived form of one of the oldest professions has a future, after all?

After the announcement of series A funding to the tune of $21m for KUDO at the end of March 2021, now a second online language-as-a-service platform (Interactio) has secured series A funding worth $30m.

KUDO started its existence in 2017, set up by Fardad Zabetian (who had previously founded Media Vision, a conference equipment company, in 2002) and his 3 co-founders, one of them a former chief interpreter at a UN department. Nearly 2 decades of equipment provision, including to the UN, is a pretty good starting point for coming up with ways to provide the same top-class service in the digital age.

Interactio started out in 2014 because of the cumbersome traditional microphones at big events delaying participants’ possibilities to ask questions, so they came up with what was later generally known as BYOD (bring your own device); software that turns participants’ mobile devices into microphones. As they reflected on their beginnings during their online announcement event, their first main clients were churches holding services for congregations speaking several languages, just not all of their members speaking all of them, thusly truly giving grassroots communities a common language by allowing everyone to speak their own.

From those very different starting points, both companies – and a number of others beside them – began to offer online platforms that allow professional conference interpreters to perform their magic from any place offering a stable wired and sufficiently fast internet connection and the quiet surroundings needed for delivering clean, professional sound. Interpreters have since then been able to work from hubs which basically replicate the conference installation on site but in one permanent location that is linked remotely to events in other places, or (especially since COVID19) they had to BTOD (bring their own devices) home to work, including in some cases radio broadcast quality USB microphones, multi-channel mixers, several laptops for the actual work and for background material and glossaries plus communication with booth colleagues, often in another country, if not on another continent altogether, said quiet environment and stable and fast broadband connection, possibly noise dampening for walls and floors, new desks (investments many could ill afford during times of a complete loss of income and precious little help for self-employed event professionals from most governments that are at odds with the expectations on the part of some clients that interpreters should somehow be charging less for their work than before). But at least, after having lost pretty much all their work due to government restrictions on travel and in-person meetings and any prospect of that kind of work coming back anytime soon, LaaS was a lifeline to interpreters, allowing them to start working again.

Both companies have thusly reinvented the way professional interpreters provide their very unique service, untying them from the hired equipment set up on site for clients with pockets deep enough to pay for equipment and one or two technicians, all the interpreters (at least 2 per language required), as well as transport and accommodation for all of them.

I am sure other platforms will follow, some of which I have already learned how to use but have had less actual working experience with, that I believe are also deserving and capable of being part of this new and exciting way for interpreters to provide their services to an even broader audience than ever before, extending the profession’s ability to bridge language gaps to more people, for even more worthwhile causes, and generally more communication. And let’s be honest, humankind is in dire need of that more than ever.

The nod of approval from the early investment community intimates that there is definitely a market for these services in this form, so there is a future, at least for now, for the human interpretation that these platforms facilitate, despite the misgivings of some in the profession.

Then again, simultaneous or conference interpreting the way we know it now took off only in the first half of the last century thanks to cabled IBM telephony equipment in a famous court in Germany, increasing the reach of the immediately interpreted word from the 2 or max. 3 persons that whisper interpreting works for to everyone in the room with headphones.

Although the hard cables have been replaced by wireless technology over the years and the table-top glass windows turned into reasonably sound-proof portable booths, this setup has essentially remained the operating model for simultaneous interpretation for more than half a century.

We are now experiencing another such watershed moment for the profession. The reach of simultaneous interpretation has been extended ‘beyond the room’, to borrow an apt phrase from KUDO’s website, to anyone anywhere in the world with a device and a viable internet connection.

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