Translator or Interpreter? Know the Difference.

This week’s installment is the first part of a series within my series of posts on Translation. All “Know the difference” posts will address some terms that are frequently misused or mixed up, and will allow me to indulge in the kind of nitpicking that is the bread and butter of any language professional.

So what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter? This is basically a simple one, but something that people tend to get “wrong” a lot in everyday usage.

Speech interpreters are often imprecisely referred to as translators, even by the brightest and funniest. It may not make much of difference in most situations, but when you actually need to hire a language professional to do some work for you, it’s a good idea to ask the right person. You wouldn’t be keen on a dentist doing your prostate exam. And neither would they, presumably. So it’s good to know the difference.

But just what is the difference? If you have read my last article, you probably have a pretty good idea already.

Both translators and interpreters work in the field of Translation (with a capital T), and the two professions are not unrelated, but they are two different occupations that require a different set of skills and tools. Some of the basic skills (being able to mediate between two languages) are of course the same and therefore some people (like myself) naturally end up studying and practicing both. But in EU institutions, for instance, the positions of translator and interpreter are entirely separate, you can only be employed as one or the other at a time, and the requirements for being hired are very different, too.

In the translation industry, it is understood that translators are people who work in written translation, they use computers, software and dictionaries to translate written texts, anything from laws and regulations to works of poetry.

Interpreters, on the other hand, are understood to be working in oral translation, they listen to what people say and say almost the same in a different language. The term “speech interpreter” gives a good idea of what the job means. To accurately explain to somebody who doesn’t speak the language what a speaker is saying, you cannot just translate word for word, you have to get to the meaning and thought processes behind the words. In this sense, it is almost like the interpretation of a poem. Sometimes you just have to hazard an educated guess on what the speaker was meaning to say.
Interpreters often use a combination of pen and paper and multimedia high tech, sometimes they only use their voice, but they always need to use their brains.

This is not to say that translators don’t, but interpreting is very demanding in terms of cognitive performance. First of all your speech processing needs to be “on fleek“, meaning you must understand what the speaker you are interpreting for is saying, ideally with all its nuances and connotations. For that you must have a very large passive vocabulary in the source language (i.e. the language you are translating from). This means because an interpreter, unlike a translator, does not have the time to look up words in a dictionary while they translate, they must know them by heart. However an interpreter usually prepares a vocab list, called a glossary, when they know the will have to deal with a lot of specialist language, e.g. at a medical conference.

But your speech production must be equally good. That means you must be absolutely comfortable with the grammar and pronunciation of the language you are interpreting into, your target language. And your active vocabulary—the words you actually use, as opposed to only recognizing them—in the target language is just as important as your passive vocabulary in the source language.

There are different modes of interpreting, and depending on that there are even more challenges, but I will go into more detail in a later post.

Only so much for now: Interpreting usually happens under immense time pressure. You either speak while the speaker continues talking (simultaneous interpreting) or you start speaking immediately after the speaker has finished a portion of their contribution (consecutive interpreting). Either way, there is not much time (but much need) to think. On the plus side, the end product is often very volatile. It’s just some spoken words that are easily forgotten and may never leave the room they were spoken in—although this is becoming less and less likely with today’s ubiquity of recording technology.

In translation on the other hand, the end product is a written text, more often than not designed for publication to at least a group of people who will permanently have a copy of the translation, they will be able to scrutinize the product for possible mistakes.
Then again, such mistakes can always be corrected and the end product updated, ideally this would happen at the proofreading stage before the customer receives the translation. With interpreting however, what has been said, has been said, so there is a greater pressure to get it right the first time. Get it wrong and you might start a war. Well probably not, but who knows.

That’s it for now. I hope this will help next time you are looking for a language professional. Or for something that will make you look smart during party small talk.

Thanks for reading. Goodbye.

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Did you find this piece good/bad/ugly? Any questions? Leave a comment below.



3 thoughts on “Translator or Interpreter? Know the Difference.

  1. Great piece Dan! Does this kinda mean that interpretation is meaning for meaning whereas translation is a bit more like word for word?

    • Thank you.
      Yes and no. The main difference is really the distinction between the written word on the one hand and the spoken word on the other hand.
      But it is true that in interpreting you generally translate a bit freer, often you just don’t have the time to get every little detail and you have to just give the gist. That is also what I meant by getting to the meaning behind the words. Sometimes orators can say very little with a lot of words.
      Both translators and interpreters should of course strive for accuracy and completeness, but translators have more time to pay attention to detail.
      However it’s still not as simple as translating word for word,for example when it comes to idioms. The proverbial bull in a china shop, for example, would have to be an elephant in German.
      So the objective in all of Translation is to rather translate meaning for meaning than word for word (although this is also not as simple as it may sound). What you say in the target language should impact the recipient in the same way as it would the original source language recipients. One of the basic theories calls this “equivalent effect”.

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