With the notable exception of intergovernmental gatherings, the vast majority of international meetings have been gradually moving over the last decades towards English exclusivity, even where native-speaking Anglo-Saxons constitute only a small minority of the delegates. The cost of old-school interpretation, the ever-increasing complexity of events, and the assumed competency of delegates have conspired to reduce multiple-language meeting environments to rare exceptions.
But some big changes are coming. Artificial intelligence promises to disrupt the linguistic status quo, as it is upending almost every facet of our economic lives. In this interview, we explore some key issues with Lakshman Rathnam, founder and CEO of Wordly Inc, the Silicon Valley start-up leading the way in AI-driven simultaneous interpretation for online and face-to-face conferences.
As you weren’t originally a meetings specialist, how did you become involved in our world?
“I was working in the hard-of-hearing technology field, where I hold several patents, and had been focusing on the challenges of AI voice-to-text transcription, exclusively in English. I happened to attend a conference where the main language wasn’t English and realised that, in effect, I had become functionally deaf.
“That was the revelation that I could adapt my work to any number of languages and that the international meetings sector was a wide-open market for AI solutions to this challenge. So I built a team from my wide circle of contacts in Silicon Valley, and after a lot of hard work, Wordly was launched just over three years ago. We passed the one million user milestone in April this year.”
How many languages does Wordly translate? What equipment is needed?
“We’re now handling live audio interpretation and text transcription from 20 and into 26 languages, regularly adding new ones. But only once we’re convinced by the quality we can deliver and that there’s sufficient demand.
“The beauty of an AI approach is the ability to offer all these for approximately the same price as for a single language pair. As for equipment, all the delegate needs is their smartphone or laptop. The organiser needs the equivalent of an iPod for each meeting room to connect to our cloud-based system. Integrating Wordly with an event’s existing production platform is extremely simple. And, of course, there’s no need for booths and racks of individual headset devices.”
Is price the most important driver of demand?
“There are three strategic drivers, all of which are long-term. The first is not simply price and achievable scale but constantly improving quality and increasing scale for a specific price. The ratcheting effect of AI is a one-way-only process: each incremental improvement, to the technical accuracy of the translation, to our ability to ‘hear’ what’s being said, to the quality and size of specialist directories, the addition of each new language is never lost. Today, we’re confident that AI interpretation can match the quality of cloud-based human interpreters, but things can only get even better in the future.
“The second driver is the competitive environment facing meetings. There has never been a tougher fight for attention, attendance, or active engagement. Every marginal advantage counts. If you’re only willing to offer your world-class content in English, you’ll inevitably miss out on potential audiences, especially from key markets like China, Japan or Latin America. If you’re only showcasing English-fluent speakers, you’re potentially ignoring exceptional research or fascinating minds, leaving that opportunity open to your competitors. Meeting owners and organisers typically underestimate the desire to work in native tongues. We’ve had clients who anticipated demand for five or six languages but discovered that their delegates were using Wordly for 15 or 16.”
Delegates for whom English is their second, third or even fourth language might be capable of full concentration for 20 minutes but working in a non-native tongue for hours is exhausting. So, even having access to translated live text is invaluable support.
“The third driver is the growing importance of values-driven strategy and DEI, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Working with associations and large corporate clients, we’ve discovered that language inclusion is important to this agenda.”
Offering multiple languages online and at events demonstrates that an organisation is culturally respectful and open.
“Also, Wordly can be used to support the needs of the hard of hearing and deaf, our original source of inspiration.”
Did the pandemic and the related growth in online meetings impact your business? Are online meetings a stronger environment for multilingual solutions?
“I think what the pandemic unlocked was a willingness to experiment. Everyone had to reinvent their business models, all the old assumptions about what worked or was unacceptable became irrelevant, and suddenly we all became (just about) competent in using tools like Zoom and Teams. It’s difficult to remember that those used to be the playthings of the IT department. We’ve focused a great deal of attention on setting up seamless integration between Wordly and the most important online platforms so that we became a simple plug-and-play solution. And we found it was easier to sell into an online environment (“reach new audiences worldwide”) than it had been to persuade an English-only face-to-face meeting to change their long-established practices.
“But once we proved ourselves online, Wordly functions and is priced similarly in both environments. Once face-to-face started again, our online clients were happy to continue using us, not least because their communities were now expecting this service. Online events are a fantastic, low-risk way to test multilingual solutions. And let’s not forget that the Netflix generation expects all their content to come with accompanying text in virtually any language.”
What are your thoughts about the role of meetings industry associations concerning this issue? Are they supportive of multilingual meetings?
“We’ve been pleased with their reactions to the idea that English-only need not be the only model. I think the DEI argument has been particularly helpful in raising awareness and shifting perceptions: any organisation serving members worldwide has to be culturally sensitive, and language plays a huge role in cultural identity. We’re now working with PCMA, MPI, ASAE, and Imex, which we classify similarly because of their role as a global community for the industry.
“We were selected as one of AIPC’s first international partners in their “Start-up Lab” concept, which enables their member convention centres to offer a range of proven tech solutions to clients. But we’re also working closely with technical partners with big corporate players, such as Cvent and numerous PCOs. Indeed, we are happy to collaborate with traditional human-interpreter companies.”
Can you imagine a future where English-language-only international meetings are a rare and endangered species?
“Actually, I can. Our research indicates that provided perceived barriers of cost and technical friction are sufficiently reduced, offering access to content in different languages attracts organisers and delegates alike. Faster than most people can imagine, interpretation AI will reach a level of fluency that is superior to all but the most field-specific-expert human interpreters. Technical friction, already very low with Wordly’s model, will become a distant memory. And per-capita pricing, whether for tens of thousands or just ten people, will be driven down to an insignificant fraction of overall event costs. Once faced with these three fast-approaching realities, why would any meeting owner not choose to go multilingual?
“But this doesn’t just apply in the Anglosphere. Why not offer any-language access to German, French or Korean or Chinese events providing world-class content? It won’t be tomorrow, but it isn’t science fiction.”