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Lebanese expat opens freelance translating company in UAE

BEIRUT: Last year, May Habib was working at a government wealth fund in Abu Dhabi when she read the book “Start-up Nation,” the story of Israel’s rise to become the leading country in technological innovation, second only to the United States.

The Lebanese expat figured that if a country of fewer than 8 million people could produce more startups and patents than the entire Arab world, then the rest of the region should be able to give them a run for their money.

During a six-week leave of absence, she put together a business plan for Qordoba, an Arabic-English computer translation service that hopes to eventually compete with Google Translate and publishing companies.

Qordoba is a take-off of Cordoba, the name of the Andalusian city in Spain that in the 11th century was the intellectual center of Europe.

“The issue [of why Israel has so many more start-ups than the rest of the Arab world] is knowledge and production in the Arab world,” Habib, currently based in Dubai, told The Daily Star during a recent trip home to Lebanon. “The solution is going digital with the power of the Internet producing knowledge.”

She spent November and December of 2010 devising her business plan, and in January registered her company in the British Virgin Islands in addition to opening a company bank account in the Cayman Islands.

Meanwhile, the local company is registered in the UAE, which allows her to do business there. She says that registering the whole company in the UAE would take too long.

“I didn’t need a location anywhere. The idea is that we’re going to be an online business,” she says, adding jokingly, “I wanted to make a million dollars while working in my pajamas.”

Although the company’s website Qordobatranslation.com is still in beta testing, Habib has already recruited staff from across 18 countries, including a team of translators and a head of technology, and a computational linguistics expert at Columbia University.

Qordoba’s freelance translators, who number more than 200, are sent an SMS when there is a translation job. They then go to the website, where they translate the text from English into Arabic or vice versa. (The company plans on expanding to French, Spanish and Turkish in the coming months.)

An algorithm ranks the level of difficulty, and the translators are paid accordingly. A computer program also ranks the translators’ skill levels and efficiency, in order to assign translations. Translators that do really well can then “graduate” to editor.

“Everyone is edited and gets ongoing scores,” Habib says. “It’s OK if they don’t get high scores. They can take simpler tasks.”

A high demand from customers has meant that many of Qordoba’s translators, although freelance, are able to work full time, many earning much more than they would from local employers in the same field.

“I want people to feel like they’re coming in to work when they sit down at their computers,” Habib says. This, she believes, will create more stability and loyalty in the company. “I just sent a check for $240 to a translator in Aleppo and the same amount to someone in Damascus for three days of work.”

Habib notes that most of her translators were born in the 1980s and 1990s. “We have a whole generation [working for us] that’s young and flexible.”

When approaching investors, Habib was also able to demonstrate her seriousness by showing that she had invested $100,000 of her own money she had saved during her years working as a banker.

She says she has also been able to win over investors with her low budget. Her marketing campaign, for example has only cost $60, with the vast majority of publicity coming from word of mouth.

For now, the new entrepreneur’s main concern is stabilizing her first company – and, of course, showing that Israel is not the only country in the region that can compete in the global technology market.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 26, 2011, on page 4.

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