Jake Colvin
July 6, 2015

Photo credit: Unbabel

Sofia Pessanha knows that the global marketplace brings challenges as well as opportunities. She founded Unbabel – along with Bruno Silva, João Graça, Hugo Silva and current CEO Vasco Pedro – to address the barrier language poses to international business and communication.

The promise of Unbabel – a technology-aided translation service – is that it can reduce the friction that language poses to globalizing companies.

“Machine translation isn’t good enough, except to get the general gist of something. And the typical human translator can only translate 2,500 words a day,” Pessanha explains. “We’re creating a better way to enable accurate translation.”

By using technology to aid human translators, Unbabel’s platform simplifies the translation process and dramatically lowers costs. Its unique crowdsourcing model allows multiple translators to work on the same text, greatly reducing response times.

Pessanha views Unbabel as a global business solving a global problem. “We want to make translations available to people around the world. The companies that use us have an international vision for their brand. The translators who work with us are from all over the world, from Europe, Latin America, and Asia. On both sides of the equation, we’re global.”

Its workforce is also global, with current or past team members hailing from countries including Bulgaria, Greece and the United States.

When it comes to future growth prospects, “one of the things we’re seeing more and more is China,” she says. The company has had an integration into China from the beginning, translating subtitles for movies and working with the online education industry translating courses. Increasingly, “we see a huge opportunity there and feel the pull from Chinese users and consumers.”

One challenge for Unbabel’s growth in China is that, “people who work with us there say our website is slow and doesn’t work very well.”  While Chinese consumers often encounter sluggish response times for global websites, for Unbabel the delays also affect its ability to engage Chinese translators on its platform.

Pessanha notes that most of Unbabel’s communities of translators live in their major home language markets – for example, many of their Portuguese translators live in Brazil. But, because of the challenges of accessing global websites in China, “most native speakers who translate Mandarin for us don’t live in China. This has a huge impact on our ability to staff and meet the demand for our services.”

The lesson that she takes from the company’s experience in China is that, “it’s really important for the Internet to be open to everyone and accessible at the same speed, regardless of where our servers are.”

Pessanha’s biggest piece of advice for an entrepreneur looking to take their business global is that, “cultural awareness and empathy are critical. Just realizing that people come from different backgrounds is super important for doing business globally.”

Sofia Pessanha