Putting A Universal Translator In Your Pocket

Hands up: ever been to a foreign country and been totally inept at communicating with your taxi driver.

I, for one, have had that fun experience – picture the scene: Tsukuba, Japan – a wintry morning trying to get to a conference I’m hosting. My taxi driver got out of bed on the wrong side that morning (probably had been doing so for many years), and we were just not able to decipher one another’s intentions. Sound familiar?

It would have been great in that situation to call someone who could both translate and interpret the social nuances.

This is where chinaONEcall steps in. Set up in time for the Beijing Olympics, they provide an over-the-phone interpretation service. I haven’t tried it yet, but they say they differentiate from normal translation services in that they interpret the context of your call from both a social and business etiquette point of view.

Given that 2.7 million US citizens visited China last year this may well be a busy number to call.

[Picture courtesy of Stuck in Customs]

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4 thoughts on “Putting A Universal Translator In Your Pocket

  1. I came up with this idea in early 2006 while I was having a shower in Manhattan. I was thinking about what the number one barrier was to my trying to live and do business in China.

    I hired my cousin, Greg Sinclair, who was teaching english in China to meet me in Shanghai and test out this idea. I hired a translator, and put her in an office with a phone, then with my mobile phone I ran around the city trying to use a translator on the other end of a mobile phone to negotiate all sorts of situations. I tried buying a sim from a street vendor (who spoke the Shangaiese dialect of Chinese). I tried explaining my symptoms to a pharmacist and buying a specific cold medicine from her. Of course, I tried negotiating a taxi ride too.

    When I got back to the US, I found another company, set up by two Harvard MBAs was offering the same service at what I estimated to be my operating cost. So I decided not to pursue the venture further. But my cousin, and by now, my uncle had become very excited by this new idea, and they have run with it, forming Chinaonecall.com.

    This video shows me doing a dry run test of the idea before going out on the street. I am on the phone on the right, Greg is on the left. The translator is in the foreground.

    The following videos show me stress testing the service on the street. I tried to make the situations as difficult and realistic as possible.



    You can read more about my tech entrepreneur oriented adventures in Asia in my blog http://lws.vox.com.

    p.s. I am a friend of Ken Berger.

  2. Thanks for the follow up comments, Lawrence.

    I had an email from Ken this morning (suggesting I replace Duncan who has just left TechCrunch :), and totally independently, this morning I found your service and blogged it.

    Do let us know how the product goes.

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