The difference between an interpreter and a translator

There is a common misconception that translators and interpreters are the same thing, as a translator and an interpreter both play an important role in communication between people who speak different languages.

What is a translator

A translator is someone who takes written text in one language and produces an equivalent written text in another language. A translator can work with a variety of written documents, including books, websites, and legal documents.

Read more about the translator profession here »

What is an interpreter?

An interpreter is someone who orally translates spoken communication from one language to another. Interpreters typically work in settings such as conferences, business meetings, and court hearings.

Read more about the interpreter profession here »

So both professions require a deep understanding of at least two languages, as well as an ability to effectively communicate in both. Both the translator and the interpreter usually translate from their second language to their mother tongue, but the reverse is also possible with very good knowledge and experience. Both make use of documentation and glossaries and dictionaries. Both need specialized knowledge in the domain of the text or of the speech in order to deliver great work.

However, the specific tasks they perform and the skills these tasks require can differ significantly – there are key differences between the two.

Translators typically work with written documents, such as books, articles, or legal texts. They convert the meaning of the original text into another language, while also taking into account the style and tone of the original author.

Interpreters, on the other hand, work with spoken language. They provide real-time interpretation of conversations, speeches, or meetings. This can be a challenging task, as interpreters must be able to listen and speak at the same time, while also ensuring that the meaning of the original message is accurately conveyed.

Thus, while it’s clear that both translators and interpreters play an important role in facilitating communication between people who speak different languages, if we take a closer look, the differences between the two professions become quite obvious.

If you’d like to know the details, here are a few of the most important ones:

Translators usually work with written text, while interpreters usually work with spoken communication.

Translators usually work with written text or text that needs to be delivered in a written form. This can include anything from websites and legal documents to books, articles, subtitling and translating audio/video recordings.

Interpreters, on the other hand, usually work with spoken communication. This can include anything spoken, from casual conversations to business meetings and court hearings.

Translations are usually permanent, while interpretations are usually temporary.

Since translations are usually written down, they are typically permanent. This means that a translator needs to be very careful to produce an accurate translation, as any errors will be permanent.

Interpretations, on the other hand, are typically temporary. This means that, with the exception of recorded events, an interpreter can make a mistake or two without many lasting consequences.

Translation is usually a one-way process, while interpretation is usually a two-way process.

When a translator is working, they are typically translating text from one language to another with no opportunity for back-and-forth communication. This is because the written text has already been created, and the translator’s job is simply to convert it into the target language.

On the other hand, interpreters typically work in real-time, meaning they are interpreting spoken communication as it is happening. This back-and-forth nature of interpretation means that interpreters must be able to think on their feet and be quick to react to changes in the conversation. They are also very much like actors, as they need to convey the message along with the gestures, tonality, meaning, cultural nuances and innuendos used by the speaker – they interpret!

Translators can take their time to produce an accurate translation, while interpreters must provide an interpretation in real-time.

Since translation is a one-way process, translators can take their time to produce a accurate and well-crafted translation. They can consult dictionaries and other resources as needed, and they can take breaks and call another specialist for advice if they need to.

Interpreters, on the other hand, must provide their interpretation in real-time, without any opportunity to consult resources or take breaks, and this can be a challenge, even if they use glossaries that they prepare in advance.

Translators can work in a variety of settings, while interpreters typically work in formal or specific settings.

Translators can work in a variety of settings, including offices, homes, and public libraries. They can also work remotely, meaning they can live in or even travel to any location, as they can deliver their work by e-mail (and they can digitally sign a document if needed).

Interpreters, on the other hand, typically work in formal settings, such as courtrooms, conference halls and business meetings. This is because interpretation is typically a real-time process, and interpreters need to be able to hear and see the communication in order to interpret it.

So even if both translators and interpreters play an important role in facilitating communication between people of different languages and while there are some similarities between the two professions, there are also some key differences of work setting, skills required and pace. These differences really separate the two. Translator and interpretes are thus two different professions that only share some characteristics, but that are definitely not the same.

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