Few people speak and think in several languages while building a career in the highly specialized industry of interpreting. Fardad Zabetian has innovated the technology that allows presidents, princes and parliaments worldwide to be able to speak with one another.
Zabetian has built a multilingual conference infrastructure through his videoconference and real-time interpretation platform, KUDO. Launched in 2017, the company has paved the way for enterprising businesses to globally interact.
The concentrated amount of highly influential people, dialogues, debates and arguments he has witnessed—and made possible—is staggering. The engagements and storied institutions involved include world and nuclear summits.
Most interesting, he has innovated how this occurs in a completely disruptive manner that has evolved this ultra-niche industry through the eons of its existence.
The fascinating history of interpreting provides crucial context for appreciating the significant contributions Zabetian has made.
In days of old, kings kept interpreters by their side to whisper in their ear. Explorers brought interpreters with them to communicate with people they encountered and with whom they wished to trade.
But in 1945, when World War II ended, an extraordinary reconciliation process began with the Nuremberg trials. This birthed the world of multilingualism that is at the crux of Zabetian’s world.
During this series of interactions, former Nazi leaders were tried as war criminals in the International Military Tribunal. As the Nazis took over many countries during the war, victims who spoke many languages were brought to the table and interpreters were needed to make the connection.
For the linguistic industry, this was a heyday for those who spoke the needed languages. They were flown in from all over the world to do globally weighty work.
This time was an important evolution of international diplomacy within the United Nations. Its interpretation service was created to provide interpretation from and into many languages in the UN’s New York City headquarters, and throughout the world for meetings such as the Nuremberg trials.
“Interpreters are an incredibly intelligent and interesting group of polyglots,” says Zabetian, who speaks English, Farsi and some German. (Editor’s note: Polyglots? See sidebar.)
“At first this profession grew naturally as a result of revolutions and wars moving people around the world. But today, they (interpreters) are specialized academics and highly trained specifically, usually for very high-level global interactions.
“Interpreters can simultaneously translate in real time, which is a very special gift. I have spent my career providing the equipment they use and most recently, a huge change has occurred in the need for physicality, being replaced by video conference technology.”
What Zabetian has done has technologized this industry in an unprecedented way. More important, he has created a business model that includes the real-time interpreting skills of these actual talents— without artificial intelligence.
This was intentional.
“This is a time in history when one might expect AI to be the technology that does the actual interpretation,” he explains. “From my 20 years being up-close and personal with this process, in highly significant situations, I have learned that the human cognitive skill of making split-second determinations is crucial for success.
“Any institution or enterprise organization that conducts global business cannot afford the mistakes that could happen without a professional who can quickly determine considerations we call legality, fidelity and neutrality.”
Another thing AI cannot do is provide nuances of communication such as tone and body language. Zabetian built his company with this in mind.
“Researchers agree that in many situations, non-verbal cues can affect a vast majority of what’s communicated,” he says.
“On video, we can obtain visual cues from a person’s body language. This was missing in the booth infrastructure, where the interpreters were most often in another room and only connected by cables and earphones.”
KUDO’s interpreters speak in more than 100 different languages. Zabetian provided another feature benefit created through KUDO: access to 147 sign languages.
Though nothing can replace the value of a physical meeting, Zabetian’s video conferencing platform has vertical drop-down menus from Albanian to Chinese, French to German. This year, he launched a self-serve scheduling platform called KUDO Marketplace that made it even easier to access the thousands of KUDO Pro Certified interpreters.
KUDO features instant feedback, screen sharing, document sharing, and live polls to make web conferences more efficient.
The company is headquartered in New York City, with other offices in London, Brussels and Geneva. Among its clients are the United Nations, World Bank, Council of Europe and myriad major enterprise companies that do business globally.
Although its clients in America, Europe, Asia and South America are mostly governmental institutions and enterprise business concerns, Zabetian says “now startups can afford to think globally from the very beginning, as it no longer requires full-time multilingual salespeople or product managers on staff and expensive travel to overcome language barriers.”
Due to the global reliance and acceptance of video conference technology, accelerated during the pandemic, KUDO’s staff exploded in 2020 from 10 to more than 100. In a three-month span last year, the company’s usage increased from 16,000 minutes per month to about 500,000.
An engineer by education, Zabetian is a masterful “people person” with a talent for team building. “I know that ideas are only as good as the people who make them manifest.”
One of KUDO’s cofounders is a former chief interpreter of the United Nations, Ewandro Magalhães. He and Zabetian worked together in cities all over the world, with Zabetian setting up the equipment and Magalhães sourcing and assembling teams of qualified interpreters to do the work. Magalhães left the UN to pursue this startup.
KUDO’s other cofounder, Parham Akhavan, is a Silicon Valley engineering savant. Ironically for a technology architect, he thinks from the standpoint of product innovation—a coveted quality for any startup.
KUDO is a lone wolf in a very specific niche, with no direct competitors. This is exciting for Zabetian, but he is also well aware that this opens the door for others to come in with new tweaks and more money. As such he felt it was important to invest, grow and—most important—continue to innovate.
“At KUDO, we truly value each team member’s input, and we foster the approach of letting the best idea win,” he says. “It’s also important to consider how this idea sets KUDO apart from others.
“I am passionate about breaking down language barriers. I believe that the smartest and most talented potential hires, greatest customers to acquire, and those lifelong business partners don’t necessarily need to speak my language.
“Every day, we serve as a connector for people worldwide. When businesses, thought leaders, innovators and creatives are able to develop ideas through collaboration, true progress happens. This means that our efforts make others’ dreams and opportunities limitless. I feel good about that.”
Occupation: Cofounder and CEO, KUDO, Inc.
Born: Tehran, Iran
Home: New York City
Hobbies: Persian calligraphy, soccer, skiing, cycling, whatever sparks my children’s interest
Favorite book: “Monetizing Innovation,” by Madhavan Ramanujam and Georg Tacke
Favorite quote: “Hearing ‘no’ is the beginning of a negotiation.”
Sigh. We wanted to define polyglot before providing you five A-Listers, but the world can’t seem to agree on what a polyglot is.
The first definition we saw was, “a person who knows and is able to use several languages.” Ilanguages.org says a polyglot is “a person who speaks more than two languages, but used often for four languages or more.” Huh?
There is also a definition of a polyglot as someone who speaks five or more languages (about 1 percent of the world’s population). We’ll stick with that one because it’s easier and more impressive.
J.K. Rowling: We’re cheating already; the heralded “Harry Potter” author speaks four languages. Her mother was half French, so Joanne Kathleen spoke that language as a child. She picked up English and German in school and Portuguese during her travels to Portugal, also marrying a Portuguese man.
Roger Federer: The tennis star speaks Swiss French, Swiss German and Italian as a part of being a Swiss national. He also learned Swedish, as well as English because of all of his travels to America.
Audrey Hepburn: The late silver screen icon spent much of her childhood in the Netherlands, speaking English at home and Dutch everywhere else. She learned Spanish to help her acting career, later moving to Switzerland where she learned French and Italian.
Shakira: Born in Colombia where she learned her native Spanish, the superstar singer’s travels enabled her to also learn English, French, Italian, Arabic and Portuguese. Many of her social media posts are written in different languages.
Natalie Portman: The Academy Award-winning actress was born in Jerusalem. Acting in foreign-language films has played a role (no pun intended) in her learning Japanese, Spanish, German and Arabic, adding to English and her native Hebrew.—Reid Creager