Viva Translate: Automatic Translation Platform for Accessible Legal Assistance
This article is part of our series featuring the founders of our 2021 Duke Law Tech Lab startups, early-stage legal tech companies with a mission to increase access to justice. Written by Erin Lee (Duke Law, JD ’23).
Growing up in a household with limited-English speaking family members, Belinda Mo witnessed and experienced first-hand discrimination based on language limitation. In addition to daily discrimination in everyday activities, limited-English speakers have difficulty accessing basic resources such as those provided by government organizations.
The idea for Viva Translate first came to Belinda while enrolled in a class on legal innovations at Stanford University. Her mentor, Professor Margaret Hagan at Stanford Law’s Legal Design Lab, encouraged her to conduct research on the language access need in the legal field. After interviewing more than 50 organizations and individuals, Belinda understood the potential of legal technology for the first time.
Belinda’s technical background in product and software engineering prompted her to partner with Tony Hua on the development of Viva Translate, a messaging platform with automatic translation functions, to help people with limited-English abilities communicate better with their lawyers and government officials.
“There are 30 million low-income limited-English speakers in the United States, and every year they feel powerless and frustrated as they navigate the American legal system,” said Belinda. “In-person interpreters exist, but they are costly to use for simple conversations, such as scheduling an appointment, between non-English speakers and their legal aid attorney.”
According to the Center for Immigration Studies, there are 60 million people who speak languages other than English and 30 million people who are limited English speakers in the U.S.
The machine learning (ML)-based translation utilized by Viva Translate has been developed significantly in the past few years. When it comes to convenience and efficiency, translation by ML is sometimes preferable compared to human interpretation. Viva Translate supports simple conversations such as scheduling an appointment or other logistical needs. The program helps build trust between lawyers and their clients as clients can receive messages from their lawyers, translated into the language they can comprehend, through SMS.
The future of Viva Translate? More advanced conversations such as those involving legal proceedings or advice, and to more platforms beyond SMS text.
With automated translation, Viva Translate aims to smooth out legal communications between limited-English speakers and their attorneys as well as to minimize language-based problems in the legal profession.