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Interpreter vs Translator: What’s the Difference?

Mar 2020

Translation ,

The terms ‘interpreter’ and ‘translator’ are often used interchangeably. Interpretation and translation are closely related linguistic disciplines. Despite this, the two services are rarely provided by the same people. Both require different skills, training and language knowledge to carry out their work effectively on a professional level.

In this article, we’re going to run through the key differences, as well as the similarities, between interpreters and translators:



The principal difference between interpreters and translators is one of medium: while the interpreter translates orally and in real-time, the translator interprets written text, often without the same need for an immediate answer.

Interpreters will often be involved in translating conferences and meetings, legal proceedings, live TV coverage and translating into sign language.

Translators, on the other hand, typically translate things like websites, print, video subtitles and software.



Timing of delivery

As we suggested in the previous point, one of the key differences between translation and interpretation is in the timing of the delivery.

Interpretation happens on the spot, either in person, over the phone or through the medium of live video.

Translation, on the other hand, happens (often multiple times) after a source text has been created.

Just think of Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey, which recently received an empowering re-translation from Emily Wilson – over two and a half millennia after it was written!

There’s still plenty of value to newer, revised translations – particularly when it comes to historical texts. New technologies and an ever-expanding corpus of reference materials allow translators to produce new high-quality translations which provide a different gloss on the meaning of words that have been lost throughout the years.



Compared to translation, interpretation doesn’t involve word-for-word translation, and can be a little rough around the edges. That’s not to say that interpreters don’t aim for perfection, but this is often difficult to achieve in real life and real-time.

They rely heavily on paraphrasing, and parts of the original speech may be left out of the target language to convey as complete a meaning as possible, given the time constraints. Culturally-appropriate idioms and colloquialisms may be reworked in a manner that is readily accessible to the target audience.

Translators, on the other hand, can take time to review their work before it is finalised and may choose to retain any idiosyncratic language and supplement them with explanatory footnotes, for example.



Interpreters need to be fluent in both the source language and the target language. Typically, they are required to translate in both directions. They must be able to deliver their translation instantly, either at the same time (simultaneous interpreting), or immediately after (consecutive interpreting) the original speech, with no reference materials. Instead, professional interpreters must rely on a good memory and mental agility.

The same is not necessarily true for professional translators. Typically, a translator will only need to translate in one direction – from the source language to the target language (usually their mother tongue). There are plenty of exceptional translators that lack conversational fluency. Translators will often have a number of additional computer-aided tools at their disposal. They may be able to apply a translation memory to the text to automatically translate anything that has been previously translated and fill in the gaps themselves.




As interpreters are more concerned with accurately conveying the meaning of a conversation or spoken message, they are perhaps a little less concerned with style than a translator would be. Translators will likely make use of glossaries and style guides to ensure a highly polished end product. The final product will often be passed to another linguist to proofread before it is converted to the correct format.

While interpreters are often proficient in spoken communication, translators require excellent written skills. With technical writing, a strong knowledge of the subject matter is often required, as well as an ability to adhere to the style and tone of the source content.


Why are interpreters and translators important?

If your global business is going to thrive, you need to be able to communicate effectively with international audiences in their native language. It’s not enough to allow a rough and ready Google Translate feature to translate the written text on your website for you – you need to be able to connect with customers on an emotional level. If you are consulting with potential customers in person, it is crucial that you have a good interpreter who is able to offer flawless translations and ensure that there is no miscommunication.

While the delivery method differs between each profession, both interpreters and translators work tirelessly to capture the meaning of various terms, expressions and idioms specific to each culture. Both must accurately capture the nuances in meaning of the original body of text or speech. This is complicated by the fact that some words or phrases have no linguistic equivalent in the target language (e.g. “lexical gaps”). It is the job of the translator or interpreter to find a suitable way of conveying the message that is accurate and complete.

For a range of translation and interpretation services in over 80 different languages, get in touch with Global Language Services!

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