Women-led Language I/O raises $5 Million in its First Funding Round
Mergers and Acquisitions
Language focused customer support solutions provider Language I/O announced on March 23 that it had raised over $5 million in A round funding. The women-led, Wyoming-based company had been bootstrapped since 2015, except for a seed round of $500,000 in October 2020. The new funding is particularly significant because according to data published by Crunchbase, only 2% of global venture capital funding goes to companies founded solely by women, and even less in the tech space.
Bob Davoli of Gutbrain Ventures and Bruce Clarke of PBJ Capital co-led the A round and will join the Language I/O board of directors along with the two co-founders of Language I/O, CEO Heather Morgan Shoemaker and CBO Kaarina Kvaavik. The founders are still majority shareholders following the funding round, owning just over 50% of the company.
Heather Morgan Shoemaker
“Language I/O is disrupting how businesses communicate with their global customers,” said Davoli. “The combination of innovative technology, product market fit, and an exceptionally strong team compelled me to invest. Language I/O is eminently poised for tremendous growth.”
“I am extremely proud of our team,” said Shoemaker. “This investment will allow us to expand our sales and development teams so we can build out our conversational AI translation tech to meet our customer’s needs.”
“We are thrilled to be one of the rare technology companies founded and led by women to receive venture capital fund-ing,” stated Kvaavik.
Ten LSPs form translate5 Consortium
Mergers and Acquisitions
Ten European language services providers (LSPs) have come together to form the translate5 Consortium, a group that’s investing in the open-source translation management system and editor, translate5, in the hopes of developing an alternative translation solution for LSPs across the world. The project includes a slew of additions to the translate5 system, such as a switch to cloud infrastructure based on Kubernetes and Docker and improvements to its usability and the translation editor and project management features.
“Translate5 is a modern tool that can be used to solve review and other processes elegantly and securely,” said Marion Randelshofer, the chief operating officer (COO) at World Translation A/S, a Denmark-based company that joined the translate5 Consortium. The consortium is made up of a group of companies that want to “actively shape, support, and use translate5 as a basic and next-generation technology,” according to a blog post on the platform’s website.
The development of translate5 has been led by MittagQI, and is well-known for its use in proofreading and post-edit-ing. One of the translate5 Consortium’s major goals is to improve the system’s machine translation and post-editing capabilities by adding more analysis options. Because trans-late5 is an open-source software, it is both adaptable and affordable, which has led to the system’s popularity among many LSPs. “It’s an intuitively designed browser-based translation software, developed by a team that excels in col-laboration,” said Rémy Blättler, the chief technology officer (CTO) at Supertext, another founding member company in the consortium.
As the use of technology in the industry becomes more and more ubiquitous, members of the consortium see translate5 as particularly useful because of its reliability and flexibility. The translate5 Consortium currently consists of 10 member companies, but welcomes other LSPs to join the consortium.
KUDO closes $21 Million in oversubscribed Series A Round
Mergers and Acquisitions
KUDO, Inc., creator of the eponymous cloud-based video conferencing platform that incorporates real-time multilingual interpretation supporting over 100 spoken languages and 147 signed languages, announced on March 30 the close of its $21 million series A funding round. Combined investments bring the total round of funding to nearly $27 million. According to KUDO, this new capital will be used for talent attraction, product engineering, marketing, and business expansion.
KUDO, established in 2017 as a remote interpretation solutions provider, saw significant growth in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted global business to a largely virtual format. In early 2021 they also launched KUDO Marketplace, a scheduling and automated interpreter booking platform. Speaking to MultiLingual, KUDO CEO Fardad Zabetian said that investors reacted positively to the launch of the Marketplace platform, and believe that it will “stimulate a whole new level of growth.”
Asked for specific initiatives the company is planning to pursue, Zabetian said that KUDO plans to use the funding to “broaden access to multilingual meetings, opening up use cases that hadn’t previously considered interpretation.”
Session console in Spanish – www.kudoway.com
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Conversations with Character(s)
Of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages, around 4,000 are written. Though many of us, certainly those of us from secure linguistic communities, take the act of writing for granted, it takes on a deeper meaning for those of us from linguistic communities that are under threat or for whom writing is tied to a more integral part of our sociocultural identity. Jost Zetzsche’s just-published Characters with Character pays homage to some of these endangered scripts, for example.
The internet exposes us everyday to the more famous children of the Egyptian hieroglyphs: languages that use some form of the Latin alphabet — English chief among them — form the majority of written internet content, with Cyrillic, Greek, and Arabic and their variants also well represented. Less well represented, by several orders of magnitude, is the bichig, the traditional Mongolian script largely supplanted since the post-WWII era by the Cyrillic script in the Republic of Mongolia.
It’s in this context that Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project, set out to create a game that would help preserve and expand knowledge of this unusual and ornate script. I spoke with Tim about Ulus, the strategy card game he and a team of dedicated linguists, calligraphers, and game designers are developing. It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion that touches on language, game design, localization, and social responsibility. See the full interview on our website, multilingual.com.
Michael Reid: What is the Endangered Alphabets Project and how did it come to be?
Tim Brookes: I’m going to answer that question backwards… in 2009 I started carving pieces of text in indigenous and minority writing systems. I discovered to my amazement that I was pretty much the only person who was doing this, which was sort of a horrifying thought because I have no background as a linguist or anthropologist. I exhibited [my carvings] in May 2010 and the response I got was extraordinary. The reason I started the Endangered Alphabets Project as a nonprofit organization was because I began collaborating with someone who was a member of an indigenous minority in Bangladesh and was trying to reintroduce teaching in indigenous mother languages In the Chittagong Hill tribes of Bangladesh, and it was clear that at any moment he could have been arrested or disappeared. So I thought I wanted to collaborate with him and help in any way I could, and that wound up being a project that is still going on today.
MR: What is Ulus and how do you play it?
TB: There are two to six players. Each player blind chooses a god card. This is based on the notion of the Greek gods, on the idea that the dramas of the gods were played out on the human chess board. Each of these gods has a different vision for the future of the Mongol lands. They’re in competition to gather the assets and strength necessary to create that particular vision of the ulus, the Mongol lands. Each player then chooses a champion, this is the human representative of the chosen god’s ambition. Some of these champions are historical figures, some are quasi-historical, some of them are mythological features.
Each of the champions has certain abilities that you choose to play at different points in the game. The champions travel in a caravan around the Mongol lands, going from one sacred site to another. When they’re at each sacred site they have the chance to battle a monster for an asset. Each of these asset cards are valuable either to any of the ulus ambitions, like the horse card, or are suitable only to one specific quest. So you’re trying to collect these cards, you’re trading them, fighting for them, and having completed the circuit around the Mongol lands you’re learning about real places in Mongolian history. At the end the champion who has the most assets cards plus the most strength is the winner.
MR: Why did you make the game?
TB: About four years ago I thought, if you’re going to revitalize a language or a script you have to begin with children. And if you’re going to begin with children you’re going to have to begin with games. I started creating a number of games for various other contexts, and that’s been going ever since.
The Chinese government announced that starting in September 2020 certain lessons in Inner Mongolia — Mongolians call it southern Mongolia to show that it’s part of their region; the Chinese call it the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region — would henceforth be taught in [Mandarin] Chinese.
It was clear that this was a situation for the Endangered Alphabets Project, because you have a clear and present danger, a culture that is well established, and one that is closely identified with its language and its unique, vertical script. The degree to which the Mongol people are identified with their script can be seen by the fact that, when the Russians took over a slab of western Mongol territory, they insisted that Cyrillic be used. In the Russian province of Buryatia, which is a Mongol region, virtually no people there can read and write the Mongol script, even if they speak the Mongol language, because they’re so used to reading and writing in Cyrillic. So it’s a perfect example of the danger that could befall even such a substantial culture as the Mongols, when a more powerful neighboring or regional culture dominates them. In the country of Mongolia, they too have been using the Cyrillic script since the Second World War, roughly. Ironically the only place where the vertical traditional bichig script has been safe up until now was in southern/Inner Mongolia. Interestingly enough it gained from its relationship with Chinese writing and calligraphy practices, and also Tibet was very influential because of course this was an area that was very influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.
MR: Who did you work with while developing the game?
TB: I was really fortunate in three respects. One is that for 11 years I taught at Champlain College in Burlington, Ver-mont, which had one of the more developed game programs in the country, so I had already met a number of people who had practical experience with game design, game art, things like that. I was the advisor for one student’s MFA thesis, an iPad drawing game which was meant to teach Mongolian calligraphy. And because he knew about my interest in endangered alphabets I was an advisor for him.
Additionally, my friend in Poland [whom I’m working with on the game] has a number of contacts, including a friend who is a professor of Mongolian language and Mongolian studies in Warsaw and whose husband is a preeminent Mongolian calligrapher. They were really helpful in terms of being a cultural resource and they’ll be translating the rules. They put me in touch with a couple of other people, including a Polish woman who’s one of our game artists, as well as people who are involved in Mongolian teaching and calligraphy.
The third thing I was lucky with was Twitter. So many of my contacts have come out of me just reaching out on Twitter. I even have someone who has promised me that the women in his village will sew the game mats for us.
In that sense, I don’t have a conventional development team. One of them did his MFA thesis on a game that involved studying Mongolian culture to a very considerable degree, and the other one has been to Mongolia, his father was a diplomat there. He teaches Chinese at a university in Warsaw, so he knows this landscape extremely well. At the heart of all of this is me, and I’m totally aware of how little I know. I lead with my naivete and ignorance.
MR: Were there any challenges you faced while creating the game?
TB: I hope that what we’re doing is not creating an ongoing business enterprise, but creating a resource that can then be taken over by other entrepreneurs, especially in Mongolia. It would be great to have a Mongolian publisher for this game. The government of Mongolia has made a pledge to reintroduce the traditional bichig script within the next four years. There are actually these great Youtube videos being made by the president of Mongolia, who is learning the script and has the humility to be able to show what he’s learned each week on a blackboard. I’ve been hoping we can make connections there but we haven’t been able to.
As for other challenges…when we were doing the Kickstarter it became really clear that we’re being supported by two very different communities who overlapped a little. One was the community that typically supports the Endangered Alphabets Project; people who are interested in language and social justice and similar issues. The other community was the gaming community, and the gaming community uses Kickstarter in a very different way to the way in which I’d been using it.
Another difficulty, especially thinking in terms of what MultiLingual readers want to know, is that this is a game that has been developed almost entirely by people who cannot speak Mongolian or Chinese or Russian, and can’t even read the script that we’re working with. I’m very good at carving this stuff and producing artwork out of it, but that doesn’t mean that I can read it. That means that the language part, the translation of the rules, figuring out how much information we need to give to players in the west about the language or the culture, is still an interesting issue. Some people have contacted me and asked if they can learn Mongolian by play-ing this game, and the answer is no. You can learn a lot about Mongolian culture and history and tradition and mythology, and you can pick up the basics of the script and my hope is it will fire people’s interest to learn it, but the game that involves learning Mongolian is the card game that my German friend is still working on.
Another one of the phrases I use about the Latin alphabet — and also the English language — is that they developed supremacy not because of any inherent qualities of the language or the script, but because at crucial moments in history we had more lawyers, guns, and money than anybody else. It’s amazing how standard it was, and even to some extent still is, in linguistics to talk about the Latin alphabet as being the most efficient alphabet, and it’s total hogwash. There was this notion that was very popular in the 19th century among British missionaries, and is currently popular among American missionaries, that we should create orthographies for people that are based on the Latin alphabet. But the Latin alphabet is the alphabet of their oppressors. It’s the alphabet of the conquerors. But there are also instances where people have adopted the Latin alphabet because it just so happened that the people who their oppressors were not European. So it’s like no, we’re going to go with the Latin alphabet because those are not the bad guys from our point of view.
“From the point of view of the dominant culture localization is “how can I sell more Mercedes in Indonesia?” But for a more sophisticated understanding of localization, especially if you want to actually be successful selling Mercedes in Indonesia, you’ve really got to understand what Indonesia is. 17,000 islands, six major religions, at least 400 different languages and 15 different writing systems, and so when you start drilling down to that level and saying “oh, this is what localization means” then you’re there with the Endangered Alphabets Project.”
MR: This reminds me of Lebanon, where there’s a movement, which can admittedly go in odd directions in other areas, to recognize the multiethnic character of the country. There are a lot of people who don’t like writing Lebanese Arabic in the Arabic script because, for them, it’s the script of the oppressor, and they prefer the Latin alphabet because it’s more neutral for them.
TB: [Companies sometimes] try to create these symbols of peace or unity, but in doing they wind up doing what I call a [US] State Department thing, which is to say “who’s ‘in charge’ in this country? OK, we’ll deal with them.”
MR: Thereby stripping the agency or recognition from indigenous or minority populations.
TB: Yes, and of course this also touches on the issue of localization. From the point of view of the dominant culture localization is “how can I sell more Mercedes in Indonesia?” But for a more sophisticated understanding of localization, especially if you want to actually be successful selling Mercedes in Indonesia, you’ve really got to understand what Indonesia is. 17,000 islands, six major religions, at least 400 different languages and 15 different writing systems, and so when you start drilling down to that level and saying “oh, this is what localization means” then you’re there with the Endangered Alphabets Project.
MR: What has the reception to the concept of the game been so far?
TB: It’s really the Endangered Alphabets Project in miniature, in some respects. I constantly have ethical and linguistic questions about everything that I do, and others do as well.
But oftentimes I’ll do a carving and post it on Facebook and somebody will say, “thank you for showing and respecting our beautiful writing.” The response that I’m getting from people in Mongolia and from the Mongolian diaspora is that they are just super enthusiastic that somebody isn’t trying to silence or demonize them. The danger there is that I take that as sort of a carte blanche, and I don’t realize that one of the characters I created is not actually a god, or is not Mongolian, or is insulting to the Mongolian people. Talk about a localization issue! And of course people in the gaming industry know this really, really well. The more characters you have, the more active the game is and the more it moves around, the more localization you have to think about. Because every one of those steps needs to have some authenticity or at least not be obnoxious.
MR: Who do you hope shows an interest in the game?
TB: I would love it if the government of Mongolia got interested in this. They face a huge task; they’re trying to teach and use a script in an entire country that has not used it essentially within living memory, so the resistance is going to be enormous. Anything they can do to make this a more fun, domestic, intergenerational thing I think that would be great. I like the idea that this is going to change the view of Mongolian culture to gamers who are only used to seeing Mongols as being enormous brutes with those wonderfully complex weapons that game artists come up with. Mongolia is a Buddhist country with a wide range of deities. The word ulus means empire or nation or land. When Genghis Khan created this enormous empire that went from Bulgaria to Korea, they actually stopped and said, “what do we want to do with this? What do we want to be, as a people?” There was a division between people who thought we are at heart a nomadic people, and people who had been to the city states of Europe and western Asia and said “that’s what civilization is.” So the game is based on this competition for the Mongolian soul, this question of “who do we want to be”? Mongolia is still the most sparsely populated major country in the world. And that’s why that wide open sky, that we in the US would think of as part of Wyoming or Montana, is a spiritual thing for them. The question is, is that who we are, or are we the major urban center of Ulaanbaatar?
[ML]Ulus is scheduled to be released in June of 2021. You can find out more about the Endangered Alphabets Project at endangeredalphabets.com.