Skeptical Hippos and a Paradigm Shift

A few months ago I had the chance to speak at the wonderfully organized BP17 Translation Conference in Budapest, Hungary. (According to the conference website, BP stands for business practices.)

Having been asked to give one of the main TED-style talks, I settled on just a few image-based slides to discuss how to convince clients that you’re worth every penny. One of the most popular slides featured an image of a skeptical-looking hippo with the appropriate caption “skeptical hippo.” I used it to illustrate the type of client who cannot be convinced of your value as a translator or interpreter, no matter the price or situation. I’d like to suggest that we spend very little time on skeptical hippos when negotiating with clients. Instead, we should focus our efforts on those clients who can be convinced of our value with a strong argument—the one linguists often forget to present during the negotiation process. Allow me to elaborate.

At some point in our careers we’ve all met skeptical hippos. These are mostly direct clients who:

  • Have somehow gotten stuck with pricing and implementing a translation or interpreting project, but would rather be doing something else.
  • Think translation and interpreting are unnecessary.
  • Think that everyone should just speak English.
  • Have many more important things to do.
  • Think they would be excellent at doing the translation themselves because they studied in Spain during their senior year in college, but: a) don’t have the time, b) were told by their boss to hire a professional, or c) find that their Spanish is just a “little bit too rusty for this manual on hydropower and its applications.”
  • Think they should spend zero dollars on this project.
  • All (or a combination) of the above.

Does this sound familiar? I bet it does. I’ve had quite a few of these clients throughout the years, and what I’ve learned is that no matter the argument, you usually can’t convince them. The usual arguments we’ve presented are: our impressive credentials, certifications, translation or interpreting experience, recommendations from clients and colleagues, subject matter expertise, etc. While these are all very worthwhile and should be mentioned, they have, in my experience, not been enough to convince the skeptical hippo. Thus, in many cases it’s probably best to just send in your price quote. When the skeptical hippo reacts along the lines of “That’s outrageous! I thought it would be 75% cheaper than this! I could do this myself!” you thank them politely for their interest and move on.

As entrepreneurs, time is the only resource we truly have. This means that every moment we spend convincing potential clients of our value when it’s already quite clear they can’t be convinced, we’re blocking ourselves from using the time to work on lower-hanging fruit: clients who can be convinced with an economic argument. Some of these skeptical hippos might be so skeptical that they think we should pay them for the privilege of working for them. (I can almost see some of you nodding in agreement as you read this.) Now, what’s that one argument we oftentimes forget to use to convince clients we are worth every penny?

You see, potential clients frequently consider translation or interpreting as a straight cost, which makes sense. They have to spend their money to get these services from us. However, sometimes the person who has been tasked with pricing and implementing a translation or interpreting project has failed to consider that translation and interpreting services are an investment in any company’s future. (Usually someone higher up on the chain of command realizes this.) For a company to grow—even American companies who have a large market share in English-speaking markets—they have to look at markets abroad. And foreign markets mean foreign languages, which is where we come in.

So, I suggest a paradigm shift when it comes to having conversations with clients about the value of translation and interpreting services. Instead of focusing solely on our qualifications, let’s focus the client’s attention on the revenue that their company is more than likely to make thanks to language services. Remind potential clients that language services are an integral part of their international growth strategy. They only have to invest in, say, the translation of a brochure that one time to reap the rewards of reaching XYZ potential new customers in markets they have not been able to reach previously. Now that’s an economic argument everyone at any company in the world, regardless of size, business model, or target markets, understands—except for the skeptical hippos, that is.

Judy Jenner is a Spanish and German business and legal translator and a federally and state-certified (California, Nevada) Spanish court interpreter. She has an MBA in marketing and runs her boutique translation and interpreting business, Twin Translations, with her twin sister Dagmar. She was born in Austria and grew up in Mexico City. A former in-house translation department manager, she is a past president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She writes the blog Translation Times and is a frequent conference speaker. She is the co-author of The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation. Contact:

This column is not intended to constitute legal, financial, or other business advice. Each individual or company should make its own independent business decisions and consult its own legal, financial, or other advisors as appropriate. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of ATA or its Board of Directors. Ideas and questions should be directed to

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