Top menu

What is the difference between interpreter and translator: two distinct professions?

technical translation servicesThe word “translator” is sometimes freely used instead of the word “interpreter”, especially in the United States. It is a common misconception and needs to be clarified.

Professional translators work with written texts, and interpreters work with oral speech. You need to have very different sets of skills to be a professional interpreter or a professional translator, and tasks are also quite different. If you are an interpreter it does not imply you are less accurate or do not follow the original message

Let us summarize what the major difference is:

  • Translators work at their own pace. A freelance translator can wake up in the morning and work in his own home office all day. Yes, there are urgent projects that require overtime work and everything not always goes smoothly, but life is usually even paced.
  • Interpreters are where the action is, be it a conference room, an onsite visit or a military base. They are always on the move, everything is always changing and is never the same: you may have an urgent phone call and be in the airport in a few hours.
  • Translators concentrate on details. Commas, word choices, page formatting, file conversions. It requires attention to minute details and not everyone is able to maintain such a level of concentration all day for many days.
  • Translators work with texts, documents, and computers. It is not that they do not have good communication skills, they definitely do, however, it is usually you and the text.
  • Translators can consult all the dictionaries, online and offline sources, glossaries and encyclopedias they want. Interpreters carry their reference sources in their brains.
  • Interpreters are all about communication skills: how to convey the message in a different language, how to make sure all nuances of cross cultural communication are preserved, how to interact with clients, employers, colleagues, audio technicians. How to be tactful and diplomatic? How to help people communicate through you without introducing anything of your own? Interpreters swim in this like fish in ocean and do it quite swimmingly too!
  • Translators and interpreters process quite different volumes of information during a regular workday. A standard output for a translator is 250 words per hour or 2,000 words per day. An interpreter, however, especially simultaneous interpreter, is a totally different animal. Imagine that an average speaker speaks at 120 words per minute (and many speak much faster). One interpreter may interpret 3-4 hours of pure interpretation time during a given day at a conference: it is 120 x 60 x 4 or almost 29,000 words per interpreter per day.

Les Misérables by   Victor Hugo (1,488 pages in the paperback English edition, 530,982 words) would be translated by one interpreter in just 18 days. So far, no one has actually attempted the feat! But simultaneous interpreters work in this mode for days and days.   professional translation servicesAs a result, interpreters, as part of their professional training, professional interpreters have learned to withstand a much higher level of stress, be highly adaptable, concentrate on the message not on unnecessary details that may potentially hinder communication and understanding. It does not mean, of course, that interpreters routinely skip parts of what the speaker is saying: on the contrary, they use a variety of techniques and transformations to convey the meaning accurately.

We can see, therefore, that, practically, it may be difficult for one person to be a successful translator and a successful interpreter at the same time, especially providing technical translation services.

And this observation is confirmed by real life. Most language professionals lean more towards interpretation or more towards translation, and hiring a translator to do interpreter’s job would be counterproductive. Conference interpretation is a separate profession.

Knowing how to select appropriate teams of interpreters and translators customized for your needs and your project should be the task of your translation services agency.