A Speech Translation Evangelist on the Business Opportunities in an Interconnected World

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I recently connected with speech translation entrepreneur Jeffry Williams about the current state of the translation sector. He sees big challenges ahead for businesses and institutions looking to tackle the translation requirements of our increasingly interconnected world—and big opportunities for speech tech providers.

“The catch-22 of language in business, education, healthcare, and telecom is that if you talk, you become liable,” says Williams, CEO of Worldwide Tech Connections, which integrates speech and communication technologies. “Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act is well thought out and well-intentioned, but underfunded, and the requirements are almost impossible to satisfy. Title 6 dictates that all information given to students, parents, patients, and employees must have equal availability in the language spoken at home. Given that there are 73 languages in a community like Tulsa, Okla., and over 200 in New York City, this is a daunting—and expensive—requirement that almost no organization can fulfill.”

To meet Title 6 requirements for spoken conversations, OPI (over-the-phone interpretation) has long been the only language solution, with some facilities paying up to $8 million per year for language interpretation. Now, the OPI industry is being partially turned on its head by speech technology, in the form of speech-to-speech and speech-to-translated-chat, whose applicability varies with the seriousness of the information communicated. Importantly, private information, private health information, financial records, and other types of information must be handled in a special way to qualify for HIPAA and other certifications.

Most public-facing businesses have a “language strategy,” but employees may not always remember who to call or what to do with an international, hearing-impaired, or visually impaired guest—so they do nothing. Businesses could be missing out on the potential revenue from multilanguage customer service, translated call centers, or a staff linguist—all of which can now be mimicked in some way using speech technology.

Williams himself has attracted a flood of large contracts in the niche speech translation market, and he projects a multibillion dollar future that includes personal communication in business and education settings.

“Over 20% of households speak a language other than English, yet banks, sales, and other database profiles do not even add a language field nor contact customers in their preferred language,” Williams says. “Stores do not greet their customers in their own language, nor can businesses give advice or hold conversations in most languages. Today’s speech technology enables all of this without hiring new staff.

“In telecom there is a surge in the direction of improved speech-to-text for faster texting as well as cross-language translated phone calls,” he continues. “Multilanguage telecom is destined to be the norm worldwide in only a few years.”

In schools, meanwhile, the assimilation challenges faced by foreign-born students are present at the outset but can be eased with speech tech. “Even the admissions forms are in a language that many [international students] cannot read,” Williams says, “and yet ‘talking forms’ that speak the text and translations of forms and contracts are quite doable with speech technology and mobile devices. At a touch of your finger or click of your mouse, TTS [text-to-speech] reads a paragraph, a field title, or inserted text in the language of the newcomer.”

And speech tools’ benefits can extend to the classroom: “Now we have teachers wearing headsets that send the teacher’s voice through a computer to the cloud, where all the magic happens. Through a laptop, tablet, or mobile device, students receive captions, bilingual subtitles, TTS, and even class notes”—though this technology must meet standards under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and protect personal information.

The opportunities for speech translation don’t end there; industries as varied as healthcare and sports abound with translation obstacles. In articulating the possibilities, Williams invokes the early days of computers, when different systems failed to communicate: “Wang floppy disks were not readable on Apple or DOS computers, and only one language could be typed on the same page. Then the giants began to work together, to exchange information across hardware. And the result is a global computer communication system that works for everyone. Can’t we do that now with speech?

“The words have kept us apart, building a barrier called language. Now speech technology has the power to do for the spoken word what computers did for documents.”  

Sue Ellen Reager is president of Translate Your World, developers of software for across-language speech communication. Reach her at sreager@translateyourworld.com.

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