Press Coverage

Feb 02, 2014

Translating tweets in over 30 languages: CEO Robert Laing of Gengo

To translate emails and tweets in Japanese into a variety of languages via the internet: that is the mission of Gengo (Tokyo/Shibuya), which has risen to prominence as a translation service. Its advantages are the low pricing that only the internet can provide and a global network of translators over 10,000 strong. Besides offering translation from Japanese into English and Chinese, Gengo can also translate English into over 30 languages, including French and Tagalog. “We want to break down language barriers,” says Robert Laing, the firm’s youthful 34-year-old founder.

Laing was born in Australia, but his parents came from the United Kingdom, giving him dual citizenship. While working in London as a web designer, he married a Japanese woman who lived in the area. He moved to Japan in 2006. Though Laing had experience living in several different countries, it was only when he came to Japan that he ran into a language barrier. Many of the web design jobs offered to him were in Japanese. His commissions decreased, and his income dropped sharply.

The turning point came in 2007. Through a friend, he happened to meet Sony’s Matthew Imai Romaine. The two hit it off, and in 2009, in an Ikebukuro apartment, Laing founded MyGengo (currently Gengo) together with Romaine. So began their economical yet high-quality translation service.

In the Gengo service, clients send in the text they wish to have translated, whereupon an order is placed with one of the company’s 10,000 translators from around the world. The results come back in as little as 10 minutes. Pricing starts at five yen per word or three yen per character. That’s a mere one-fifth of what translation agencies typically charge.

At first, some in the business world derided Gengo as “too cheap,” proclaiming that its low prices “must be due to low quality.” In the six months after its founding, Gengo’s income ranged from less than 100,000 to up to about 200,000 yen per month.

A year after the start of service, however, Gengo’s client base was on the rise. The number of translators—300 at Gengo’s founding—also rapidly increased. Gengo’s financials aren’t publicly disclosed, but in 2013 it received a total of 1.2 billion yen from investors such as NTT Docomo. Rakuten and YouTube, Google’s video hosting site, also use its service.

As the company grows, it places great importance on “preserving the quality of our translations.” In order to become a translator, applicants must clear a test that has only a 10% pass rate. Low evaluations from clients decrease a translator’s job rating and can even impact the translator’s available workload. Gengo currently plans to increase its number of translators to 100,000 while maintaining the service’s translation quality.

Since the translation agency handles all its work over the internet, it does not necessarily require an office in Japan. When Laing is asked, “Don’t you want to go to Silicon Valley?” he laughs and says, “I like Japan just fine.” It seems as if the service that strives to bring the languages of the world together will remain in Shibuya as it continues its global expansion.

Source: Nikkei Morning Edition, 2/2/2014