Communicating the Value of Our Services

The image we have of ourselves as freelancers and the image that is presented to the general public do not necessarily overlap.

I was delighted to see a summary of John Milan’s May 2017 ATA webinar published in the January–February 2018 issue of The ATA Chronicle,1 and not just because I’m a member of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters and know John personally, but because the issue of rates is intertwined with the perceived value of our services.

Given that almost every week there’s yet another article about yet another technological breakthrough heralding the death of our profession, being able to present the value of working with professional translators and interpreters is important for our industry’s future.

Although it would be nice to see people make rational decisions that are in their best interest (e.g., hiring a professional), inherent cognitive biases (also known as heuristics) in decision-making often prevent us from doing so. This applies to the perception of the value of our services. Fortunately for us, the messy question of how we make decisions and how our thinking is influenced by things that, in an ideal world of economic theory, should not be relevant at all, continues to be researched. And it doesn’t take much effort to find information about the findings.

For example, one of the decision-making biases that is frequently listed as exceptionally useful for making the price of a service seem more acceptable is “anchoring.”2 This concept, developed by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, describes a cognitive bias where an individual relies too heavily on an initial piece of information offered (considered to be the “anchor”) when making a decision. As an example, in one of the experiments Tversky and Kahneman conducted, writing down the last two digits of their social security numbers affected the amount study subjects were willing to bid in an auction for a variety of items. (To learn more about the shortcuts the human brain relies on when making decisions, read a comprehensive overview on Wikipedia,3 or Michael Lewis’ book, The Undoing Project,4 or listen to episode 271 of the Freakonomics Podcast, “The Men Who Started a Thinking Revolution”5.)

It would be nice to think that researching cognitive biases online and finding a way to use them on our websites or in conversations with clients would make clients and the public in general see the light. It could go something like this:

  • Add images of happy people to your website. (Affect heuristic: mood changes according to a stimulus.6)
  • Add the number of words you translate, as long as this is a suitably large number, to the page on your website listing rates. (The anchoring heuristic discussed earlier.)
  • Add an availability calendar to show that you’re a busy translator/interpreter/agency. (Scarcity heuristic: people might place a higher value on your services if they see you are in demand.7)
  • Add multiple testimonials, ideally from people who are already like the target audience. (Social proof heuristic: people might be more willing to consider the value of your services after reading the positive recommendations of others.8)
  • Describe in vivid detail how amazing a client’s life would be if only they started working with you. (Simulation heuristic: the easier it is for people to imagine something—such as purchasing products or services—the more likely it is that they will do so. It works, too!9)
  • Describe in painstaking detail how much effort goes into translation. Why? Because apparently there are people out there who believe that all it takes to become a translator is memorizing a dictionary.

Speaking of the last bullet point: according to the economist Dan Ariely and financial comedian and writer Jeff Kreisler, authors of Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter (in the chapter appropriately called “We Believe in the Magic of Language and Rituals”):

Taking the time to have a better understanding and appreciation for the construction of something—an Ikea desk or a fine meal—might increase its value to us.10

But here’s the problem: an Ikea desk or a fine meal are very real and can be appreciated as objects. Translation or interpreting services are, by definition, services, so it is very difficult for a non-specialist to figure out how much effort goes into the production of the said service.

Why is this an issue for translators, interpreters, and other creatives? According to Dollars and Sense, people rarely try to figure out what exactly goes into the price of a product or service:

Assessing the level of effort that went into anything is a common shortcut we use to assess the fairness of the price we’re asked to pay.11

Which means that if the level of effort is estimated as low, a low price is more likely to be perceived as fair.

Although I happen to think that comparing translation or interpreting to manual labor is a really bad analogy, the following example from Dollars and Sense might help us understand why the perceived value of translation can be so low. One example Ariely and Kreisler use is particularly poignant. In this fictitious scenario, James, who had been locked out of his apartment and rescued by a locksmith, is outraged about the price the locksmith charged for his services:

James didn’t think the locksmith’s price was fair because it took the locksmith so little time. But would James have preferred that the locksmith bumble around, take a long time, and fake the effort? Well, maybe. It’s easy to pay for conspicuous effort. It’s harder to pay for someone who is really good at what they’re doing—someone who performs their job effortlessly because their expertise allows them to be efficient. It’s hard to pay more for the speedy but highly skilled person simply because there’s less effort being shown, less effort being observed, and less effort being valued.

Language professionals can certainly relate. You can probably see how the perceived lack of effort (“even machines can translate”), the assumed lack of necessity to acquire skills (“everybody can translate”), and the often-touted short turnaround (another way that signals a perceived lack of effort) make it more than a little bit tricky to advocate for the value of our services.

As Ros Schwartz says in her delightful article in the November-December 2017 issue of The ATA Chronicle, “translation is sometimes seen as ‘typing in another language.’”12 So, from the point of view of a potential buyer, if this is all it takes, why on earth should this cost so much? As a matter of fact, why should I pay for translation services if online translation tools can do it for free? Occasionally, a very public blunder clarifies the matter (e.g., the chefs for the Norway Olympic team using Google Translate to purchase eggs13).But these public gaffes do little to change the fact that the general public (that includes translation buyers, obviously) doesn’t see us as skillful writers crafting our messages while carefully considering the intricacies of cultural implications.

The image we have of ourselves as freelancers and the image that is presented to the general public do not necessarily overlap. And with so many translators leading with “You should work with me because I’m cheaper than an agency,” it’s small wonder that there is a lot of resentment in translation groups (at least in the ones I follow). It would seem that in some cases even translators are not clear on the value they provide (or uncertain that they add value).

How to Overcome the Perceived Lack of Value?

As John Milan points out in his article, “each of us, on our own, has relatively limited power to help the industry understand quality and differentiate one translation from another.” How could professional associations such as ATA do more to ensure that the general public and potential clients understand what goes into mastering translation or interpreting skills and why professional services are important?

The American Medical Association is very efficient in lobbying the government for its members’ interests.14 (I’m not suggesting we copy AMA’s tactics and strategy. Obviously, AMA has deeper pockets than ATA, but this is something ATA can strive for in its advocacy efforts.) However, in his article “Doctors in a Wired World: Can Professionalism Survive Connectivity?” David Blumenthal, from the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital, shows that for a professional association to command such a strong position, a recognition of professionalism by a society is a must:

The essence of professionalism is its claim to a distinctive competence, an ability to provide a service that is valued by members of society individually and recognized through law and custom collectively. That distinctive competence makes society dependent on the profession and also confers professional authority. Another way of saying this is that at the core of medical professionalism is an asymmetric competence between patient and physician.15

The situation discussed in the article might seem familiar to translators and interpreters: there are concerns that the internet will make doctors redundant, since patients would have access to information online. The study was published in 2002, so 17 years later we can see that even though the advance of technology has not obliterated medical professions, although it has changed the conditions in which they work, the discussion of the technological disruption continues.16 I strongly suspect that in 15 years translation and interpreting will also survive the technological breakthroughs.

However, for our industry the main challenges are a widespread belief that “anyone can do it” (technically true, but can anyone do it equally well?) and, consequently, the lack of recognition of the professional status of practicing translators and interpreters. I hope that ATA’s substantial public relations efforts will be augmented and complemented by useful and interesting content from agencies and individual translators and interpreters talking about our work and explaining how it’s important for each sector so that we can convincingly show that these professions are called so for a reason.

“So What?” Versus One-Size-Fits-All Advocacy

I would argue that “umbrella” advocacy is not going to be enough. While people might occasionally be reminded about the importance of words and error-free communications when they encounter amusing mistranslations, for the most part they’re probably not going to care.

Which brings me to the last point. The work of ATA, other translator and interpreter associations, and the media highlighting the importance of working with professionals and “getting it right” is vital for our profession. But we need to do more to get the word out about the importance of hiring professional translators and interpreters within in our own specializations. Unless people in the fields in which we work have a very real reason to believe that their projects, jobs, and their lives are going to be negatively affected by choosing the wrong translation or interpreting provider, the most likely response is going to be “So what?” But what do buyers of translation and interpreting services in different sectors care about?

For website translations, there is a way to measure data and build a business case for an investment. For instance, K International has published “ROI of Translation: 4 Ways It Makes Businesses More Competitive.”17 Among other things, the article mentions research from Common Sense Advisory—the frequently cited “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: 2014”18 research study (e.g., “60% of shoppers from non-English-speaking countries ‘rarely or never’ bought from English-only websites”).

A blog on the PhraseApp website (a translation management platform) also provides some suggestions on measuring return on investment for translation management:

Translated websites and landing pages lead to higher conversion rates, and translated ads will result in better click-rates, which can be measured and compared easily. PhraseApp, for example, noticed that the average time spent conversion rate for landing pages increased by +17% after localization.19

There are also case studies that show how localization or translation fit into organizational strategy as a whole, such as how the Starwood hotel chain was able to focus translation efforts on underserved languages and avoid overspending on translation. In this particular case, Starwood hired a mathematician to create a model that would predict how much adding a translation into a specific language would boost the number of bookings (and conversely, of how not adding a translation—and saving money—would affect the number of bookings). This tactic resulted in a more strategic approach.20

Presenting case studies might not be applicable to all industries and sectors in which translators and interpreters work, but couldn’t one argue, for example, that better interpreting in a hospital leads to greater customer satisfaction? I assume yes. Would this be important to the Powers that Be in a hospital? I would think so.

But is there anything else that prospective clients could possibly care even more about? Unless we get out of our Facebook groups and “translation bubbles,” we won’t know. And unless we find out, we won’t be able to get past the “So what?”

  1. Milan, John M. “Why Can’t I Raise My Rates? An Introduction to the Economics of Language Services,”
  2. Wikipedia,
  3. “Heuristics in Judgment and Decision-Making,”
  4. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017),
  5. Dubner, Stephen J. “The Men Who Started a Thinking Revolution,” Freakonomics Podcast (January 4, 2017),
  6. See
  7. See
  8. See
  9. See
  10. Ariely, Dan, and Jeff Kreisler. Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter (Harper, 2017), 140,
  11. Ibid., 158,
  12. Schwartz, Ros. “How Long Will It Take You to Type This in English?,” The ATA Chronicle (November–December, 2017),
  13. Hamilton, Tom. “Team Norway Ends Up with 15,000 Eggs Thanks to Translation Error,” ESPN (February 8, 2018),
  14. Dubner, Stephen J. “Nurses to the Rescue!” Freakonomics Podcast (November 14, 2017),
  15. Blumenthal, David. “Doctors in a Wired World: Can Professionalism Survive Connectivity?” The Milbank Quarterly (September 2002),
  16. Iarovici, Doris. “The Challenge of Doctor-Patient Relations in the Internet Age,” The New York Times (March 1, 2018),
  17. “ROI of Translation: 4 Ways It Makes Businesses More Competitive,” K International,
  18. Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: How Translation Affects the Web Customer Experience and E-Commerce Growth (Common Sense Advisory, 2014),
  19. “How to Measure ROI for Translation Management,”
  20. O’Neill, Sean. “How Starwood Optimized Its Website Translation Speaks to an Industry Becoming Fluent in Data,” Skift (Apr 6, 2017),

Ekaterina Howard is the administrator of ATA’s Slavic Languages Division. Her interest in decision-making, persuasion techniques, and customer research has led her to switch to writing website and email copy full-time. Now, instead of translating marketing materials, she translates business ideas into impactful copy. To find out more, visit Contact:

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