What is the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

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Most people think that translators and interpreters are the same thing, but these terms have different meanings. If you’re looking to communicate with your audience or customers in another language, it’s important to understand the main differences between a translator and interpreter so that you can choose the right service for your needs.

The main difference is that translation involves writing and interpretation involves speaking. However, there are other important aspects of these roles that show how different these tasks are.

5 differences between a translator and an interpreter

1. Written vs oral media

The most fundamental difference between translators and interpreters is that the first group works with written content and the second works with oral content. Interpreters also work with visual and tactual material, such as sign language and braille.

Anything written falls under the category of translators. Anything spoken, heard, signed or touched generally requires an interpreter, not a translator.

2. Immediate vs delayed timing

Another notable difference between an interpreter and a translator is how quickly the work is performed. Material that needs to be interpreted – such as conversations, speeches and performances – usually requires immediate or almost immediate communication. For translation, more time is available to perform the work.

This means that interpreters must work quickly to produce results in the moment. In contrast, translators usually have several hours or days to complete a job, or even longer if they’re working on big projects, such as extensive articles or books.

3. Speed vs accuracy

Because interpreters have to work fast, they are often less accurate than translators. Although interpreters always try to be as precise as possible, speed is often more important. In addition to considering the overall meaning, they need to think quickly about how to deal with interruptions, mistakes, cultural factors and facial expressions, all without taking a break. They need to decide immediately whether to leave out irrelevant content, adjust phrasing for simplicity or use different grammatical structures to suit the situation.

Translators, however, are expected to provide highly accurate representations of the written material they work with. They can spend a significant amount of time making sure single words or phrases are translated correctly. They have more time to consider details such as passive vs active structures, informal vs formal tone, double meanings, historical context, and so on.

This timing difference between translators and interpreters separates these two fields regarding speed and accuracy.

4. Internal vs external tools

While they are working, interpreters can’t stop to check a dictionary or consult with an expert. If they’re unsure of what a word means or how to communicate it well in the target language, they can only use the knowledge they have in their mind at that moment.

Because translators have more time and are expected to be more accurate, they use more tools than interpreters do. They rely on dictionaries, reference materials, translation software, machine learning tools, online research and any other resources that help them translate text accurately. They can also consult with experts and work in teams to take advantage of the collective knowledge of a group.

5. One vs two directions

Another interesting difference between a translator and an interpreter is the direction they work in. Interpreters communicate fluently in both the original and target languages, meaning they work bidirectionally. For example, if they are interpreting a conversation from Spanish into English, they might need to speak with the Spanish-speaking participants, so they need to be comfortable thinking and speaking on the spot in both Spanish and English.

Translators, on the other hand, usually only translate in one direction – from the original language into their native language. They need impeccable knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, but not necessarily strong speaking skills.

An example is a translator who grew up speaking English and then studied Japanese. Because English is their first language, they translate Japanese text into English rather than the other way around. They might or might not be able to speak or write Japanese with ease, but they must be able to read and comprehend it easily.

Skill differences between a translator and an interpreter

Understanding a language is a different process from producing it. It’s important to note the general skill differences between translators and interpreters and the unique strengths each role requires.

Interpretation requires advanced speaking and expression skills. Interpreters must be good at quick thinking and improvisation, and they are often creative and have a good memory.

Translators also have to be creative, but their work requires more precision than interpretation does. They have to be good at writing and organising content, analysing multiple meanings and considering cultural and linguistic nuances. Their work requires a high level of thoroughness and attention to detail.

Do you need translation or interpretation?

In today’s globalised and inclusive world, companies are expected to connect with audiences across cultures, languages and media types. And there are many other reasons businesses might need translation or interpretation.

If you are still unsure about interpreter and translator differences, check out these lists of what projects fall under the two categories.

Typical content for translation

  • Websites and advertisements
  • Books and articles
  • Birth, death and divorce certificates
  • Business and financial records
  • Legal and medical documents
  • Software content
  • Patents and technical manuals
  • Film, television and video game subtitles and transcriptions

Typical situations for interpretation

  • Customer service interactions
  • Speeches, concerts and performances
  • Medical and legal appointments
  • Meetings and conferences
  • Emergency health or domestic crises
  • Live television coverage

Keys for finding the right translator or interpreter

The takeaway message when considering translation and interpretation differences is that translation involves written text and interpretation involves oral, visual or textual content.

Whether you need interpretation or translation, much of the same advice applies, regardless of the differences between translators and interpreters. Here are some helpful tips for making sure your project goes smoothly:

  1. Make sure the translator or interpreter specialises in the topic you’re looking for.
  2. Ask for references and review samples to ensure that they are a good fit for your project.
  3. Give them as much information as possible about your expectations and needs.

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