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What's the Difference Between a Translator and an Interpreter?

Erica Huttner

One of the most misunderstood things about the translation industry is the fact that translators and interpreters do two very different things. Obviously the two are connected since they both involve converting information from one language to another, but the mechanics behind both are quite different.

When meeting new people, conversations often revolve around what people do for a living. One thing I've noticed about being a translator is the fact that I have to spend much more time explaining my job than other people do, because most people simply don't know what a translator does. However, they think they do, which always leads to interesting conversations.

Quite often when I mention that I'm a translator, the person I'm talking to will launch into an explanation of how their company hires "translators" for meetings with foreign clients, or how their school has a "translator" for communicating with students who don't speak English. Naturally, this puts me in the slightly awkward position of having to explain that those "translators" are actually interpreters, who do something quite different from what I do.

So what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

Translators are people who translate written content from one language to another. For example, clients send me things like blog posts, articles, and documents in Spanish. I then sit at my computer and work on converting the information they contain from Spanish into English. There's generally no rush, so I have plenty of time to consult dictionaries and other linguistic resources, as well as contemplate whether or not what I've written sounds natural. I can go back and change a word or phrase as many times as I like, or even rewrite entire sections upon uncovering new information that helps explain something I've already translated.

Interpreters, on the other hand, are people who interpret speech from one language to another. In most cases (unless they're providing their services over the phone), interpreters work wherever the multilingual conversation they're interpreting is being held. For example, you'll find medical interpreters working alongside doctors in hospitals, military interpreters working alongside military units in war zones, and court interpreters working alongside lawyers and judges in courtrooms.

While translators have plenty of time to sit and ponder their word choice, interpreters are expected to communicate ideas between languages almost immediately. If they're lucky, they'll receive some information regarding the topics of discussion in advance so that they can look up key terms that might come in handy. However, much of interpreting comes down to paraphrasing what is being said, since the key is to convey the message in a timely manner. On the other hand, since translation is written, much more emphasis is placed on how individual words and phrases are translated.

As you can see, translators focus on written language, while interpreters focus on spoken language. Although both professions require good knowledge of at least two languages and share some techniques and resources, they also involve very different skills. There are undoubtedly some people out there who are both translators and interpreters, but they're quite rare.

For my part, I love translating, but found simultaneous interpreting to be completely overwhelming when I tried it out in a class session as part of my translation degree. Having to listen to speech in one language, convert it into English in my head, and then say it out loud, all at the same time, made me feel like my head was going to explode. I'm much happier sticking to the written word, just as I'm sure there are interpreters out there who are quite happy they never have to deal with written translations.