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Interpreter vs Translator: Main Differences

As the practice shows, most people these days believe that there is little or no difference between the roles of interpreter vs translator, yet these linguistic terms stand for two distinct tasks. The major difference lies in how a foreign language is approached and the focus on either written or verbal aspects of translation. In simple terms, when the talk goes about interpreting, it will almost always stand for working in person at the conference or providing simultaneous interpreting during an important meeting.

As for the translator’s work, it stands for work with the written documents, which is a completely different approach that requires a different set of skills and a special preparation. While professional translators are technically capable of working with interpreting and trained interpreters may provide a decent translation, the common rule is to separate these two jobs. There are several reasons for that, which are worth learning about to understand the peculiarities of both. 

Who is Translator? 

Since the translator term is used more often than anything when an average person needs to translate a document or expand one’s business internationally, most people do not really know what is the difference between translator and interpreter. These terms are not interchangeable because the role of a translator is to work with already existing text or materials that are written down, while the interpreter works live, just like a TV host who has to react and work on-air to provide immediate translation without trying to edit or get ready. 

The translator has the luxury of taking some time to finish one’s job and use translation memory tools, look up words in the dictionary, and stay in control of time and resources. It often poses a question within the lines of is translation more effective than interpretation. It would be wrong to contrast both terms since there are a different approach and specific sets of tasks that one tries to achieve. The translator provides a precise translation of what is being written and can work with adaptation, editing, or the localization of a website or an application, while an interpreter is limited and has to work on the location most of the time by providing immediate translation. Therefore, efficiency is out of the question and purely depends on the context, complexity of initial material, and the skills of an expert. 

Who is Interpreter? 

The major difference between translation and interpretation is that interpreters work with the verbal text or what is being spoken live or during a phone conversation. The same relates to broadcasting or working with video or audio recordings to some extent. If one needs to provide an immediate understanding of what is being spoken, the work of a related specialist will be more helpful. The advantages mostly relate to a faster turnaround and immediacy of one’s work. It must be noted that interpreters usually provide a very different kind of results if one compares it to an adjusted, adapted, or edited kind of written work. It does not make interpretation any better or worse because the difference is a necessity to provide high-quality results right away. For example, if a doctor wants to talk to a foreign patient, it is the interpreter’s work that will fit instead of the written services since the time may be critical. 

It often brings up translation vs interpretation debates, especially among those who think it is the same kind of work, yet interpretation takes a lot of listening and an experience of reacting fast because time plays a major factor in such a task’s success. It can be compared to a different mindset that is way more challenging and demanding in its own way. 

Types of Translation and Interpretation 

As we know it, there are many kinds of translation work, which is also true for interpretation. 

  • Simultaneous Interpreting

 It means that a person must translate what is being spoken or played back instantly by listening and understanding the next sentence that comes up. It does not happen right away per se because a person only starts to talk once a part of the text has been understood. For example, we see a famous person say something and only then hear the expert speak. The task here is not to paraphrase but to transpose the precise message, which is why this kind of work is very demanding as there is no time to think twice or decide on a word choice. 

  • Consecutive interpreting

 It is usually used for not so large business meetings where the speaker stops and waits once a certain thought has been completed. It works just like a lecture and helps a lot when there is more than one speaker involved. It is also good for taking notes. 

  • Travel assistants

 Next, we have the specialists who work with the travelers as the assistants and translate phrases or words that are being spoken by the situation. The examples include helping to order food or help with a business agreement. 

  • Whisper interpreting

Not so common types of interpreting include over the phone assistance and the whisper guidance, which is like simultaneous interpretation, yet it takes place in a situation where a person sits next to a foreigner and whispers the text in their native language. It is often seen during the court hearings or places where wearing a headset is not permitted technically or for any other reason. 

  • On-demand interpreting

 It is where a helpdesk person speaks several languages and offers immediate language help. 

Speaking of translation types, there is literary content, work with the legal documents, business agreements, localization, medical translations (also known as the technical writing), and many other types. It always depends on a subject and can vary from case to case. It also shows that interpreter vs translator are two different jobs that may deal with the same subject, yet require specific skills and readiness to react fast or take time to present the information right. 

Common Skills Needed to Translate or Interpret 

Regardless if you request a translation or interpretation service, a specialist must know the background of a situation and understand the context. In most cases, an interpreter must stay alert all the time and catch the original meaning right away, while the translator also focuses on the general information to analyze the details at some later point. Therefore, the common skills that are required include: 

  • Advanced knowledge of both languages. 
  • Excellent reaction and readiness to understand text visually and by ear. 
  • In-depth cultural knowledge and a technical background when dealing with specific subjects. 
  • Understanding the difference between precise delivery and paraphrasing. 
  • Knowledge of slang and country-specific expressions. 
  • Good ethical judgment on how to adjust the text when and if necessary. 
  • Excellent organization and time management skills, which is crucial for both cases.

It must be noted that both translations and interpreting work relates to a localization process where an expert often has to provide both services due to a technical adjustment or voice-overs. Practical cases include mobile applications, video games, and educational materials. 

Can a Translator Work as an Interpreter and Vice Versa?

The common knowledge and practice prove that once a person can translate some written text, then they are capable of interpreting. However, there are some key differences like experience, preparation, and readiness to work in a different environment. The translators usually have the luxury of working in the comfort of their offices and scheduling their time. It is always possible to take a break and think about what has been completed. While translations and interpretations have a lot in common, the latter have very strict schedules and must be present and attentive all through the lengthy business conference or an international meeting at the office. It shows that interpreting work is more challenging since such a specialist always functions as a man in the middle who has to deliver fast and condensed information, catch the tone, listen, and transpose things correctly. 

Now the interpreter who is used to translating what is being heard may not have enough experience of working with the text because it is a different way of thinking and a totally different approach to a language. While there is no scientific proof to back it up, it is not so common for professionals to do both tasks. Therefore, interpreting and translating have their own pricing schemes and requirements both for in-office employees and the freelancers who arrive on location by demand. While a person can be trained and skilled enough to do both, it is recommended to focus on either one to achieve really good results. 

10 Differences Between Translators & Interpreters

When it comes to interpreter vs translator comparison, it is possible to single out 10 differences these professions have. Here they are:

  1. Different time requirements and types of translation experience required for each type of work. 
  2. Specific language skills that are required to implement each task correctly and on time.  
  3. Training and readiness to catch the tone of a voice, which is a crucial part of any interpreting work.
  4. Mobility matters of translation vs interpreting. The specialists working with text have greater mobility and a flexible schedule, unlike interpreters. 
  5. The delivery forms between spoken and written content. 
  6. The tools that are more common to translators like CAT, language packs, spell checkers, etc. 
  7. The accuracy concerns. The interpreters always aim for fast, yet accurate delivery to provide critically-important information. 
  8. Lack of reference materials. The interpreters only deal with what they hear and cannot check twice with some helpful materials, which makes it more challenging. 
  9. The spoken word peculiarities. Sometimes a verbal content may use different structures, resulting in much less speech accuracy. 
  10. The target audience and editing. Understanding one’s audience is critical for interpretation as there is no opportunity to say things differently or edit it later. 

Which is Better: Translator or Interpreter?

Now it is high time to address the translation versus interpretation debate of which is better. The truth is, these are two different matters that do not replace each other. Quality work, in either case, requires a good understanding of what is being spoken or written down, which is why it takes experience and years of hard work. It is wrong to assume that something is better because it all takes effort and skills to get things done right.