5 Major Differences Between Interpretation and Translation

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In order to thrive, your global business needs to communicate with international audiences in their native language as flawlessly as a local company would. This may involve interpretation of your content, translation, or both. As closely related linguistic fields, the two processes are often cited interchangeably—but each has a distinct role to play in certain situations. How do you know which is best?

At first glance, the difference between translation and interpretation lies in each service’s medium: interpreters translate spoken language orally, while translators translate the written word. The two professions also have similarities, such as deep cultural and linguistic understanding, expert knowledge of the subject matter, and ability to communicate clearly. However, recognizing what the differences are between an interpreter and a translator will be more useful when choosing from the two.

The difference between translation and interpretation


Contrary to popular belief, interpretation isn’t word-for-word translation of a spoken message. If this were true, the result would make little sense to the target audience—sentences in one language are often constructed in an entirely different way to in another.

Instead, it’s all about paraphrasing. Interpreters need to transpose the source language (language to be translated) within context, preserving its original meaning but rephrasing idioms, colloquialisms, and other culturally-specific references in ways the target audience can understand. Interpreters may even be required to act as diplomatic mediators in certain environments, and often need to be good public speakers. Not only that, but they have to deliver their message instantly—either in unison with (simultaneous) or immediately after (consecutive) the original speech—with no help from scripts, dictionaries, or other reference materials. An interpreter’s only resources are experience, a good memory, and quick reflexes.

Interpreters work on projects involving live translation: Conferences and meetings, medical appointments, legal proceedings, live TV coverage, sign language


Perhaps the biggest difference between interpreters and translators, then, is that most translators use computer-aided tools in their work. This involves converting the source content into a file type that’s easy to work with (typically RTF), applying a translation memory (TM) to the text to automatically translate anything the tool has translated before, and filling in the gaps from scratch. As the translator goes through each section of text, they may refer to glossaries and style guides to ensure quality. Finally, they’ll pass the translation to another linguist to proofread, then convert the final document back into its original format ensuring the closest possible match.

Where interpreters have a fundamental proficiency in spoken communication, translators need excellent written skills. They’re often specialists in particular fields and perfectionists by nature, having to adhere to source content’s style and tone as well as grammar rules and overall accuracy.

Translators work on any information in written form: Websites, print, video subtitles, software, multimedia

Which service do I need?

So the differences between translator and interpreter are vast. To sum up, here are the four main distinctions to consider when determining which service is best suited to a project:

  1.     Delivery: As mentioned above, a key difference between translation and interpretation is in the timing. Interpretation takes place on the spot. The process can occur in person, over the phone, or via video. Translation, on the other hand, can happen long after the source text is created. This gives translators ample time to utilize technologies and reference materials to generate accurate, high-quality translations.
  2.     Accuracy: Interpretation requires a somewhat lower level of accuracy to translation. Interpreters aim for perfection, but it’s challenging to achieve in a live setting—some of the original speech may be left out of the target language, for example. Again, time is on translators’ side when reviewing and editing for accuracy.
  3.     Direction: Interpreters must be fluent in both the source and target language, as they’re required to translate in both directions instantaneously without the aid of reference materials. Professional translators typically work in one direction: their own. Given that they only need to translate source content into their mother tongue, they’re not required to be fluent in the source language.
  4.     Intangibles: Making metaphors, analogies, and idioms resonate with the target audience is a challenge that both interpreters and translators face. On top of this, interpreters must capture tone, inflections, voice quality, and other unique elements of the spoken word and then convey these verbal cues to the audience.

Now that you know what the difference is between an interpreter and a translator, you’re ready to explore each in line with more specific translation requirements: Do you need to translate highly technical content, for instance, or content covering a niche topic? Although interpreters and translators broadly share the same respective competencies, a language service provider can correlate your needs to professionals with skills and knowledge perfct for each project.

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