Making Yourself Understood in Beijing


For more information about your Asian translation needs, visit 1-Stop Translation’s website or e-mail us at


We Test Over-the-Phone Translation Services;
Getting a Dosa in New Delhi, Contempt in Paris

July 17, 2008; Page D3

If you find yourself lost in translation while traveling abroad there are the usual fixes — gesturing wildly as if playing the game charades, using a trusty phrase book, or hoping for the help of a bilingual bystander. But interpretation companies are hoping you use another tool: your cellphone. These services aim to give you access to a 24-hour bilingual interpreter; you call the service on your cellphone, explain your dilemma in English, then hand over the phone to whomever you need to speak with — cab driver, waiter, police officer, doctor, or the object of your affection in a bar.

Over-the-phone interpretation, mostly aimed at companies that conduct business in several languages, is expanding. The industry saw $700 million in sales in 2007, and is expected to grow to $1.2 billion by 2012, according to Common Sense Advisory, a research firm specializing in business globalization and the language-services industry.

We tested four companies in different countries to see if the over-the-phone interpretation services proved a good way to deal with two classic traveler scenarios — a complex restaurant order and a taxi ride. Our reporters placed restaurant orders with a twist like a vegetarian meal in France and factored in a peanut allergy in Jakarta, Indonesia. And our taxi drivers were asked to go to a destination, wait outside while we attended to our business, then head to another destination.

Our tests had some limitations — we couldn’t fake a medical emergency, a stolen passport or buying a home abroad — the types of stressful things for which interpretation companies say some customers find their service most useful.

Across the board we found the services fairly expensive. In Jakarta, we spent about $30 on dinner and the cab ride, but about $40 for 10 minutes or so of the interpretation service we used to order dinner and direct the taxi. The cheapest service we tested was chinaONEcall, at $1.48 per minute initially but cheaper as minutes are added.

And there was a lag between the moment a call is placed and the moment an interpreter comes on the phone — in one case more than five minutes. So we learned it is best to call slightly before you find yourself face-to-face with a confused cab driver waiting anxiously for your direction.

In Jakarta we tested Language Line Services, a U.S.-based translation and interpretation service and the largest telephone interpretation service in the world. Their Personal Interpretation Service was easy to sign up for and use. We never had to wait more than two minutes between the time we called and the moment an interpreter came on the line.

We called the service from a Chinese restaurant, giving the interpreter a long list of items we wanted to order, noting specifics about how we preferred each dish and informing the interpreter of our dinner guest’s peanut allergy. We found the interpreter impressive: She double-checked that the waiter at the Chinese restaurant spoke Indonesian, not only Chinese, showing local knowledge. She explained to the waiter who she was, adding “bon appetit,” to us before saying goodbye. The order came exactly as requested.

Our Jakarta cab ride also went off without a hitch and the interpreter appeared to have local knowledge, helping the cab driver get to the location we requested. But we felt the service was too expensive for casual use at $3.95 per minute. The company says the service is cheap compared with standard international calling charges, and the caller is billed only for the time actually spent with an interpreter. But the toll-free number provided by the company works only within North America.

In Paris, we tested CallUma, a new U.K.-based service that says it provides “help” abroad by offering other types of traveler services in its packages, such as special luggage tags that track baggage, concierge service, and a text-messaging feature for translations and requests.

Our efforts weren’t particularly welcome. When we handed over our cellphone to ask for a vegetarian meal at a Paris restaurant near Invalides, the waiter spoke to a thorough and polite interpreter for several minutes, then put down the phone and asked us in English “do you like trout?” with a look of almost contempt.

At a taxi stand, we had to wait more than five minutes to be connected to a French translator, causing confusion within the row of cab drivers as we passed up getting into several cars. The company says our reporter called a customer-service number, not the same number we used for our restaurant test, which delayed the connection to an interpreter.

It took some cajoling for a cab driver to let us into his car after we finally got an interpreter on the line. When the driver took the phone he didn’t know what to do with it, first looking for a text message on the screen. Eventually, an interpreter got our request across and we made the journey. The company later said it would have been easier if we had asked for written directions via text message.

The company translates from English into 18 other languages, and the cheapest package costs $38.86 per year, which includes 15 minutes of over-the-phone assistance, plus baggage tags, unlimited text translations, emergency assistance and a host of other benefits. Additional minutes are $1.89 per minute. Users can call a U.K. or U.S. number for service, but the company plans to add more local call-in lines.

In Beijing we tested chinaONEcall, a recently opened U.K./China-based company that translates only between English and Mandarin (and vice versa) and is geared toward independent users. The initial cost is $89 for 60 minutes, or about $1.48 per minute, but refills are cheaper. And users call a local Chinese number for service.

But our reporter found the quality of the interpretation lacking. We asked the interpreter to take us to the Moma Towers, but didn’t get an immediate translation, so we assumed the interpreter didn’t know the correct word in Mandarin. After a back and forth, we mentioned the Mandarin name and got on the road.

Later, the company went back and listened to a recording of our reporter’s calls. (Several companies had our calls on file when we checked in with them later to get their response to our tests.) They said the interpreter was online trying to figure out which of two Moma Towers in Beijing we wanted, causing a lag in communication. The interpreter should have been more “confident and explained to the customer exactly what they were doing but I feel they achieved the customer’s goals and managed the situation,” says Greg Sinclair, operations director for the company.

We ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Beijing, but when we asked the interpreter to order humus, kebab and mint tea, the interpreter didn’t recognize those foods even after we spelled out a few of the words. In the end, the interpreter asked us to tell him the numbers next to the food we wanted and he told the waiter. The company says interpreters want to complete the call as quickly as possible because customers are paying per minute, so decided that asking the customer the numbers was faster then researching a translation for the cuisine.

In New Delhi, India, we tested Language Translation Inc., a U.S.-based translation and interpretation services that started a 24-hour telephone interpretation services early this year. After sitting down in a restaurant in southern Delhi, we called the interpreter to explain that we wanted a wheat-free recommendation from the waiter. After being connected quickly, we passed the phone to the waiter, who immediately gave it to a superior who spoke to the interpreter for several minutes. After a series of questions and passing the phone back and forth we decided to order a dosa (a large south Indian style crepe), which the waiter promised via the interpreter is “always, always” made with rice. All parties seemed tolerant of the back and forth.

A cab ride also went smoothly, though when we attempted to use the service for an autorickshaw ride we found the loud street noise made it difficult for us to communicate with the interpreter, and a patchy cellphone connection meant we had to call back several times to complete our instructions to the driver and agree on a price. The company offers over 150 languages and costs $2.20 per minute.

In the end, we still prefer our old charades gestures or a good phrase book for communicating in most everyday situations, especially given the steep prices for the interpreter services. But we definitely think the services would come in handy in an out-of-country emergency or a situation where a precise translation is required.

Language Line Services, tested in Jakarta, Indonesia The most expensive service we tested at $3.95 per minute. A toll-free call-in number is available only from within North America. Translates from English to over 170 languages and vice versa. We found the quality of the interpretation excellent. The interpreter seemed to have local knowledge, asking if our waiter at a Chinese restaurant spoke Chinese or Indonesian.
CallUma, tested in Paris, France The cheapest package costs $38.86 per year, which includes 15 minutes of over-the-phone assistance as well as other traveler benefits like unlimited text-message translation. Currently has a U.S. or UK dial-in number. Translates from English into 18 other languages. Packages include other traveler services like bag-tracking tags, emergency assistance, and online document storage. While the interpretation was functional, the idea of passing over a cellphone for language help didn’t fly with our waiter in the French capital.
ChinaONEcall, tested in Beijing, China The cheapest service we tested. The initial cost is $89 for 60 minutes, or about $1.48 per minute, but refills are cheaper. Local Chinese dial-in number. Translates from English to Mandarin and vice versa. We found the interpreter didn’t communicate enough with us, leaving us hanging with a cab driver waiting for directions.
Language Translation Inc., tested in New Delhi, India $2.20 per minute. Toll-free call-in number only from within North America. Translates from English to about 150 languages. If you plan in advance it can arrange a vice versa interpreter. We found the interpreters skillful, but realized calling on a loud, busy street while organizing a ride from an autorickshaw made it difficult to communicate.

–Max Colchester, Jackie Range, Lam Thuy Vo and Tom Wright contributed to this article.

Write to Sarah Nassauer at

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For more information about your Asian translation needs, visit 1-Stop Translation’s website or e-mail us at



One response to “Making Yourself Understood in Beijing

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