Interpreter vs. Translator


Interpreters and Translators convert both explicit information and implicit concepts from one language into another. They must speak, read and write fluently in at least two languages.

Apart from relaying language, interpreters and translators must convey the tone and style of the original. Their aim is for the target audience to have the same experience that the source language audience had. They must be articulate and be able to render complicated, vague concepts into a clear, concise wording for their clients.

Although interpreters and translators have many things in common, their jobs are in fact very different. Translators deal with written words and interpreters deal with spoken words.

Translators convert a written document from a foreign language into their mother tongue.

The aim of a translator is for the audience to think his or her translation is an original piece of work. Therefore, a translator must be, above all, a very good writer in his or her own language.

Translators have to deal with tone, register, cultural references, style, as well as many other aspects when they are translating a document. Some words or phrases may not have equivalents and some words have connotational meanings that are difficult, if not impossible, to render into the target language. In addition, translators are increasingly being asked to translate highly specialised scientific or technical texts that require either a previous expertise in the subject field or a significant amount of research. A translator’s goal is to attain the perfect balance of a translation that is accurate and faithful to the original but sounds completely natural in the target language.

Some translators may specialise in one particular subject area but this is not a requirement. These areas include: health/medical translators, legal translators, literary translators and localization experts.

Translators mostly work on the computer. They receive the document via email and will often reply with a quote. Once given the go ahead, the translator will start the assignment. Translators can often complete 1,000- 2,000 words a day depending on the language combination, difficulty of the text, and other factors. Some translators use CAT tools/translation memory software. This allows them to compile their own glossaries. All translators research technical and specialist terms to ensure quality and accuracy. Once they have finished their translation they will proofread their own work. It is standard industry practice have the translation edited by a secondary translator. This also ensures quality and accuracy.

Interpreters convert spoken information into another language.

There are two modes of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive interpreting, the interpreter waits for the speaker to finish his thought, sentence or speech and then conveys the entire message in the target language. For longer interventions, interpreters often take notes to help them remember everything that was said. In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter either whispers the information to their client (also called chuchotage). During large international conferences, the interpreter works (ideally) in a sound proof booth he interpreter speaks while simultaneously listening to the speaker. However, the simultaneous interpreter is not doing two things at the same time but three! This is because there is a décalage or delay in the output. The interpreter must listen to the entire idea and then reformulate it accordingly in the target language. So, in effect, the interpreter is listening, remembering what the speaker said a few moments earlier and speaking at the same time.

There are two main types of interpreting:
Conference interpreting
Public service interpreting

Conference interpreting mainly takes place a large international conferences or for multinational organisations such as the United Nations or the European Union. It is at these venues that simultaneous interpreting is employed. Due to the difficulty of the task and the intense level of concentration required, conference interpreters work in pairs and only interpret for 20-30 minute intervals. In addition, they only interpret into their mother tongue. They also do a significant amount of research before a conference to enable them to be knowledgeable on the subject matter and anticipate the speaker’s message.

Public service interpreting is mostly consecutive, although chuchotage is also used. Public service interpreting is mainly for Health and Legal services where an interpreter must be provided if requested. Public service interpreters must interpret into both languages and often must carry out a range of tasks in a single assignment, such as consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, sight translations, taking witness statements, etc. They also must be knowledgeable on the subject matter, whether it be legal, medical, or even more specific for individual assignments.

Other types of interpreting include:
Business interpreting
Community interpreting

Business interpreting is for private clients and could range from accompanying business executives on trips, interpreting at conferences, business meetings, etc.

Par contre, community interpreting is often carried out by volunteers of sorts who are bilingual and assist in interpreting tasks without formal interpreting training. Community interpreting often takes place in the voluntary sector.

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4 Responses to Interpreter vs. Translator

  1. Lee Eisenberg says:

    I always try to comprehend what a strenuous job simultaneous interpretation must be.

  2. P Mayorcas says:

    Dear Dina….I wondered what you meant by, ‘par contre, community interpreting is often carried out by volunteers of sorts who are bilingual and assist in interpreting tasks without formal interpreting training. Community interpreting often takes place in the voluntary sector.’

    Very few people are truly bilingual. Being bilingual does not mean that someone can properly carry out the often delicate and confidential task of interpreting between a non-native speaker and end client whether in the voluntary, community or other areas? It is, for example, alarming to learn that LOCOG is planning to use quite an army of volunteer interpreters at the London Games. I would imagine that your company is well aware of the qualifications, training and experience required of any interpreter, in any situation. Best wishes, Pamela Mayorcas

  3. Ed Bosson says:

    Very good information, but I would add two more for interpreting. I am aware you’re referring to the broad and professional description of translator and interpreter. The two more features: verbatim (literal) and interpreting (the way you describe it where interpreter needs to know the content and purpose before providing interpreting).

    As it sometimes happens, the hearing person and the deaf person have previous rapport with each other, and the subject to be interpreted may be not within the interpreter’s range of understanding. In this case, literal interpretation serves the purpose. The interpreter may not understand the content, but that is ok as long as interpreter is able to do verbatim and either party will understand each other.

    I have found many interpreters resist this concept of must understand the content before they can interpret.

    Nowadays deaf individuals are becoming more sophisticated and specialized in their fields, and it is impossible for an interpreter to be able to know all subjects to be interpreted. If interpreter(s) insist understanding the content, then the interpretation likely will fail.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love interpreters and use the exculusively after all I am one of the owners of Convo and use community interpreters for most of my needs. I am just saying…

    The foreign language I am referring to is American Sign Language and the comments I made above refers to ASL.

  4. Pingback: What are denotation and connotation? | Express Language Solutions Blog

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