What’s the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

Companies that require language services usually ask a very important question – What is the difference between an interpreter and a translator? On a quick glimpse, these two profession might seem similar, as both of them help other people understand different languages. While that is true, there are some very important differences between an interpreter and a translator.

How they work

The settings in which they work is different. Translators work with the written language while interpreters deal with the spoken language.  In addition, translators only work in one direction. For any given text, they can translate from one to another, for example from English to French. If the same document needs to be translated back into English from French, another translator is generally used. This is because translators usually translate into their native language, as the results are always better that way.

In the case of interpreters, they usually work in both direction. The same interpreter can translate from and to the same language either way. A good example is court interpreters. They normally work alone and translate both ways.

Types of translation and interpreting

These two profession are also different in the type of services they can perform. There are many types of translation, from word-for-word translation to literary translation and to website translation and other, more technical, types of translation. Each of them have their own terminology and require specialised training in order to translate accurately.

Interpreting, however, has only three types – consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting and sight translation. Consecutive interpreting is used to translate paragraphs, so a person talks for a while then pauses to let the interpreter translate what he said. Simultaneous interpreting is when the interpreter talks almost at the same time as with the speaker to translate in real time. If a document is shown during such a meeting, the interpreter will translate it on the go, that is sight translation.

Working with them

One important difference between a translator and an interpreter is working with them. A translator doesn’t have to meet his clients. They can just receive the files to be translated and maybe exchange some phone calls. An interpreter, however, works surrounded by people in environments that can become stressful. A meeting with a lot of people who talk fast would make anyone nervous, or a court hearing where cases are discussed the whole day, back to back. So an interpreter must not only be proficient at his job, but he must also have the right state of mind for the job.

For the sake of simplicity, here is a visual representation of the clearest difference between a translator and an interpreter.

The difference between a translator and an interpreter


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