Translation and interpretation are two language-related concepts that people often mix up. They both involve converting content from one language to another, but do you know the difference between the two? If your answer is no, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we’ll go over the basics of both interpretation and translation, answer some common questions about these disciplines, and go over the differences between the two.

  1. What is translation?
  2. Are there different types of translators?
  3. What’s the importance of translation for business?
  4. What is interpretation?
  5. What are the different types of interpretation?
    1. Simultaneous interpretation
    2. Consecutive interpretation
    3. Whispered interpretation or chuchotage
    4. Over-the-phone interpretation
  6. What’s the importance of interpretation for business?
  7. What’s the difference between translation and interpretation?
  8. Top skills of translators and interpreters
  9. Do I need a translator or an interpreter?
  10. Final thoughts

Translation is the action of transferring written content from one language (referred to as “source language”) into another (referred to as “target language”). This means a translator has to have expert knowledge of both languages, as well as the cultures of both countries or regions. Having the proper cultural knowledge means translators are able to understand the nuances of the text and can properly convey its meaning and intent.

Translation is carried out over a set period of time that allows the translator to use various resources—such as style guides, dictionaries, and glossaries—as well as consult experts to complete their task.

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There are not really different types of translators, but translators do specialize in different areas. Some translators may be focused on legal documents, for example, while others may work on marketing or literary texts. Each translation field usually has different requirements in addition to the technical knowledge they require.

Here are some of the areas translators can specialize in:

You can also take a look at the most common documents that require translation here.

Whether you require to render your website, legal documents, or marketing texts in a different language, having them properly translated is extremely important. Translations should be accurate, clear and follow the requirements of the specific area or field. This is key to making sure the target text fulfills its purpose and meets your business goals. This is also why you should always hire professional translators for these tasks.

Unlike translation, interpretation focuses on the spoken word. Interpreters will convert the source language into the target language on the spot. You could say interpretation is like live translation. In addition to what is being said, interpreters pay attention to verbal (for example, tone and inflection) and non-verbal cues (such as facial expression) to properly render the speech in the target language.

Some situations in which interpretation is needed include medical appointments, conferences, meetings, legal proceedings, lectures, and calls.

In addition to specializing in different fields, interpreters can also choose to focus on one or more of the different types of interpretation. We’ll look at these below.

In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter converts the speech from one language to another as they hear what is being said.

Simultaneous interpreters usually work inside soundproof interpretation booths away from the speaker. They also tend to work in pairs so they can switch and take breaks every 20 minutes or so as the task can be quite taxing.

Here, the speaker will go on for one to five minutes while the interpreter takes notes. The interpreter will then convert the source speech into the target language with the help of those notes. In this case, the interpreter is usually close to the speaker.

Consecutive interpreting is usually the best fit for small audiences or in small or one-to-one meetings.

Whispered interpreting is when a simultaneous interpreter whispers their translation to the target audience (which may be one person or a handful of people). It is also called “chuchotage”, which is the French term for “whispering”.

This type of interpreting is used when only a small number of people don’t speak the source language.

This type of interpreting can be either simultaneous or consecutive. The interpretation is done over the telephone and participants can only hear the voice of the interpreter.

The downside of over-the-phone interpreting is that the interpreter can’t see the participants and may miss non-verbal cues. That is why video remote interpreting (VRI) might be more suitable in some cases.

If you are looking to expand globally, interpretation may be necessary for your business to grow. Having specialists able to ensure proper communication between you and your business partners or clients is essential to succeed in this goal. Depending on your specific needs, you may need interpreters for occasional meetings or events, or it might make sense to have full-time interpreters on staff. Just like with translators, be sure to hire professional interpreters to ensure the best possible outcome.

The main difference between interpretation and translation is probably clear from the definitions above. Translators work with the written word while interpreters work with the spoken language.

Another difference is that, while translators have more time to work with the text provided, interpreters work in real-time. This also means translators have time to browse various resources and use specific technologies as they work to ensure the accuracy and quality of the translation.

Although interpreters strive for perfection, their accuracy level will be a bit lower due to the live setting. As we’ll see below, interpreters study reference materials related to each job beforehand, but can’t refer to them while interpreting. Here, being fluent and transmitting the core content or message is more important than accuracy.

Moreover, interpreters work in both directions (interpreting from and to their native language), while translators ideally translate from their second language into their mother tongue.

Another difference to note is that, while the working material of translators is the text in the document, interpreters don’t just work with what they hear, but also pay attention to verbal cues, body language, and visual context.

A final difference to point out is that interpreters prepare before actually carrying out the job. They will study reference materials and research the specific topic to make sure they are prepared on the day the interpretation takes place. Translators have, of course, studied the field before, but the research for a specific document will be carried out once they have the text they have to translate.

As you can see, although both disciplines entail transferring content from a source language to a target language, there are major differences between interpretation and translation. Because of this, translators and interpreters also require different skills.

Here are the main skills a translator should have:

  • Be a native speaker of the target language and fluent in the source language
  • Have good cultural knowledge of both the source and target languages
  • Have excellent writing skills
  • Be tech-savvy
  • Be detailed-oriented

And here are the top skills for interpreters:

  • Be proficient in both the source and target languages
  • Be a good listener who also pays attention to body language
  • Have a strong short-memory
  • Be good at paraphrasing
  • Have the ability to work well under pressure
  • Be a good multitasker

The main thing to consider to figure out if you need a translator or an interpreter is whether you are dealing with a written document or if you need one or more people to understand someone speaking in a foreign language.

As we’ve covered the differences between translation and interpretation above, we’re confident you’ll be able to figure out which one you need at any given time.

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It is also important for you to consider the type of written text or the setup for the event that requires interpretation to find the right professional for you or your business.

Final thoughts

We hope this article has made the differences between translation and interpretation clear and also given you a comprehensive overview of these two disciplines.

You can also learn more about our translation services here.

Updated July 11, 2022 in Translation