Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Smartling, a Language Translation Engine for the Web, Raises $10 Million

Last Friday, I was collecting the grim news from Norway from local news sites in that country. News sources like NRK.no, it seemed to me, were publishing details of the attacks faster than international news sites in English, so, perhaps stubbornly, I stuck with them. But I’m not a Norwegian speaker, so I was at the mercy of Google Translate, and while it largely worked, I kept running across weird things. The phrase “shooting at vermin” kept appearing in stories about the shootings on Utøya Island, and I never figured out why. (If you’re a Norwegian speaker and can enlighten me in the comments, please do.)

Aside from the horror at the events in Norway, the incident gave me new insight into the language chasm that still exists on the Web. For one thing, that there may have been lots of people turning to Norwegian news sites from outside that country, many of them non-Norwegian and probably non-English speakers. Why isn’t it easier, I wondered, to have text written in a language other than your own, more readily available in the language you do speak?

It turns out there’s a company right here in New York that’s doing just that. Smartling describes itself as a Translation Delivery Network, and uses the cloud to give sites the tools they need to easily serve up their pages in pretty much any language. Its customers already include foursquare, Scribd and SurveyMonkey, and it just landed a $10 million Series B funding round from IDG Ventures, with prior investors US Venture Partners, Venrock and First Round Capital also participating. Its Series A was $4 million.

I talked earlier this week with Smartling’s CEO and founder Jack Welde. He’s a former Air Force pilot who still flies today. He came up with an interesting language problem: In one context, “going into a bank,” means walking into a financial institution; in another it means maneuvering a plane. Most translation engines use a statistical method and so assume that “bank” means the financial building, without allowing for the fact you may be reading an aviation site. Context is kind of a big deal.

Welde tells me there’s a significant opportunity for companies on the Web to reach out to speakers of other languages. Four-fifths of U.S. residents are already on the Web, but only about 30 percent of China’s population is on the Web, to say nothing of other countries like Brazil, India and elsewhere. “The growth in Web users is occurring outside the U.S., and language is a key component to taking advantage of it,” he says.

Welde compares Smartling to Akamai, the Web-caching specialist that caches content to make its delivery more efficient. Smartling serves up on-demand versions of Web content from the cloud. Site owners choose the languages they want their content translated into, and redirect their domain name servers to point to those controlled by Smartling. There are three options for translation: One is machine translation, one is crowdsourced by a network of volunteers, and there’s also an option for professional translation. There are three tiers of service, starting at free and going up to $249 a month.

One advantage over relying on static translations like those delivered by Google Translate, Bing Translator or Yahoo’s Babel Fish is that the content becomes searchable in the translated language. That’s Smartling’s cloud network dynamically serving multilanguage versions of a client’s site, and then discarding them a few hundred times a second. It’s currently serving about 500 million page views a month.

Smartling has also partnered with CloudFlare, the Web security start-up to offer Smartling’s translation service as an optional add-on for its customers.


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