Translator vs. Interpreter: Two intertwined concepts for the general public

Most people outside the world of translation and interpreting are not aware of the difference between these two very similar, yet very different professions. In fact, most translation and interpreting students will have had to explain at some point in their lives to family and friends that translation and interpreting are not the same thing.

Therefore, questions like the following are recurrent in an interpreter’s day-to-day life: what is interpreting, isn’t it the same as translation, but what exactly do you do? Moreover, when you say that you are an interpreter, some people may think that you mean you make a living as an actor, which is not even close to reality.

For all these reasons, we will now take a look at the main differences between these two professions that are so misunderstood in society.

Oral vs. Written

This is the first difference that comes to mind and also the most obvious to anyone. An interpreter is dedicated to the transmission of the content of oral texts from a source language to a target language; we could say more simply that he/she is in charge of making spoken translations. On the other hand, a translator is exclusively dedicated to the translation of written texts; from a written text in a source language, he/she creates an equivalent text in the target language.

Skills

Because of this difference in codes, translation and interpreting do not require the same skills. Thus, we can establish that the profile of an interpreter is that of an extroverted person who is able to speak confidently in public, while that of a translator is that of a person who knows how to express him/herself in written form in the target language with great accuracy and without making mistakes.

Deadlines

As far as the working conditions of both professions are concerned, there are a number of differences. First of all, the deadlines. While a translator has a fixed deadline from the moment he or she receives the assignment, an interpreter always works in real time. Whether it is simultaneous or consecutive interpretation, the time available to the interpreter to reformulate the information into another language is very limited. Therefore, to be an interpreter, it is necessary to have a great capacity for reformulation, a good memory to retain the message and to know how to work under pressure.

Speaking of pressure, sometimes speakers at conferences or congresses do not think about the person who has to interpret for them and end up speaking at speeds at which the interpreter runs the risk of suffering a heart attack. But this pressure is also felt by translators in their own way, especially when they receive an assignment that is too tight because the client wants it done at the same time he or she orders it. We can say that working under pressure is a typical characteristic of both professions.

Working environment

In general, a translator can work from home or, in the case of a translation company, from the office. On the other hand, the interpreter must travel to the various events where his or her services are required. This means that the work routine differs from one profession to another.

As for the necessary material, the translator only needs to have a computer with an Internet connection to start translating and researching the subject. For an interpreter it is different, depending on the type of interpreting to be done. For example, for consecutive interpreting, a notebook to take notes and a pen is enough, while for simultaneous interpreting you need to have an interpreting booth.

Accuracy

Finally, the translator’s work requires great precision and fidelity to the original text, especially in the case of technical translations where accuracy is a must. For his part, the interpreter has a certain freedom to express the original idea due to the difficulty of the immediacy of the interpretation; he does not need to mention all the details, as long as he conveys what is essential and necessary for the understanding of the original.

Nathan Woods

About the author

Nathan is a lead project manager with over 16 of experience directing translation projects, as well as website and software localization projects.

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