Olenka Polak: Translating Foreign Films on Your Phone

Olenka Polak's MyLingo puts helpful voices in your head.
Olenka Polak's MyLingo puts helpful voices in your head.
Ryan Orange

One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2014 issue. Check out our entire People 2014 issue.

Olenka Polak was a freshman at Harvard when the idea came to her. Her Polish cousins had come to visit, and they'd gone to see the movie Hugo together. Polak enjoyed it, but the cousins had a lousy time. They hardly spoke any English.

As a student at Harvard's Innovation Lab, an on-campus tech incubator, Polak was surrounded by people intent on launching their own companies. Polak wasn't like that - she wanted to be a documentary filmmaker - but soon she realized she had what many of her friends did not: a good idea.
What, she wondered, if foreign-language tracks for new releases were available on smartphones?

Then anyone could enjoy a movie in whatever language they preferred. It would work for an immigrant mother who wanted to watch a movie with her kids. It also would be great for an American expat who wanted to see a film in English.

Polak and her brother, Adam, started working on the app, which they called MyLingo. They figured they would be ready in time for the release of The Dark Knight Rises, which was six weeks away.
"We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into," she says now. It took two years, until March 2014, to launch, finally, the first movie with MyLingo capability: Cesar Chavez.

Technical problems were one hurdle. But the major difficulty has been dealing with Hollywood. The foreign audio tracks belong to the studios, so in order to get anywhere, MyLingo needs to be able to license them. Polak has been taking a lot of meetings.

"Everyone likes it and understands the value of it," she says. "But everyone has their agenda every day, and this is a lot to take on for a studio. ... It's never been done before."

Still only 20 years old, Polak grew up in Greenwich, Conn., the daughter of Polish immigrants who left that country after being involved in the Solidarity movement. Polak grew up translating for her parents, helping them navigate in American society.

"Having parents who don't speak English, you grow up fast," she says.

They were stereotypical immigrant parents, always pushing their children to succeed. So it was difficult for them when Polak told them she was dropping out of Harvard. She was too busy flying to L.A. to get to her classes.

"You're in school to learn, and I was learning elsewhere," she says. "I was learning by doing my company."

She moved to Santa Monica in January. She still doesn't have an office but splits time between two different tech incubators. But like any startup, she plans to conquer the world.

"We want this to be as ubiquitous as popcorn," she says.

She has a ready pitch for studio executives on the size of the domestic Latino market, and ambitions to move into other forms of content.

"We want to be your go-to language guys," she says. "Whatever you turn on, whatever you engage with, you can go to our platform to swap out the audio for whatever preferred language you'd like."

She'd also like to make a movie about her parents and the Solidarity movement. Or maybe launch a Polish food truck or work on marketing beef jerky.

"I think beef jerky is branded so poorly," she says. "It's all men beating your fist against your chest. Beef jerky is low-calorie and it's tasty. If it was branded in a girly sort of way, more girls would buy it."

One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2014 issue. Check out our entire People 2014 issue.

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