What’s The Difference Between Translators And Interpreters?

Both jobs require moving information from one language to another, but they’re not exactly the same.
Translators and interpreters represented by a group of four friends sitting on a park bench and signing to each other

The words translator and interpreter are sometimes used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. We won’t make you wait for the straightforward explanation: interpreters work with spoken or signed words, while translators work with written words.

These may sound like practically the same thing, but interpreting and translating require different sets of skills. Let’s dive into the types of interpreters and translators, and what makes their work unique. 

Interpreters

An interpreter’s job often requires moving information from one language to another as quickly as possible. They’re needed whenever there’s a meeting between people who speak different languages. If you live in a mostly monolingual place, it is easy to overlook the importance of having interpreters everywhere from doctors’ offices to the United Nations.

Types Of Interpreter By Method

There is no official breakdown interpretation types, but here are some of the most commonly used kinds of interpreting.

Consecutive Interpreting — consecutive interpreting is when a person speaks in one language, and once they’re done the interpreter translates what that person just said. This usually means the interpreter has to take notes while others are speaking to ensure they remember everything that they said. This is useful in group settings, because it means people who speak either of the languages being used can understand it, but it does slow down the pace of conversation.

Simultaneous Interpreting — this is when interpreters start translating someone’s speech while they’re speaking. This is common, but without the use of extra technology (like with over-the-phone interpreting, discussed below), it only works in small group settings, because otherwise the overlapping can be confusing. Almost all sign language interpreting is simultaneous, because signed languages and spoken languages don’t conflict.

Whisper Interpreting — a subset of simultaneous interpreting, this is when an interpreter is quietly translating, usually for a single person. It’s meant to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Over-the-phone Interpreting — this is when any interpreting is done over the phone, and it adds a lot of flexibility. The United Nations has a complex system of phone interpreting that allows people across many languages to communicate.

Types Of Interpreter By Content

In addition to using different methods, interpreters also differ by what exactly they’re interpreting. There are really countless ways that interpreters are used, but here are a few of the most common.

  • Travel Interpreters — for any number of reasons, some people use interpreters when they travel around the world. Journalists, ambassadors and at times even wealthy tourists use travel interpreters to help them communicate more easily with others.
  • Medical Interpreters — medical interpreting is one of the most vital professions, because it can quite literally be a matter of life and death. These interpreters make sure that patients and doctors alike are able to communicate effectively.
  • Legal Interpreters — courtrooms are another place that interpreters are vitally needed, and legal interpreters need to have a solid knowledge of judiciary vocabulary in this role.
  • Conference Interpreters — nothing brings together as many people from around the world as a conference, and so they’re often staffed with interpreters working across many languages. The style of interpreting — whether it be over-the-phone, whisper or simultaneous — can differ from conference to conference.
  • Community Interpreters — this is a broad category, covering all interpreting work that goes on in communities of any size. Community interpreters are used in a wide range of places, including town halls, NGOs, social organizations and press conferences. 

Translators

While “translator” is sometimes used as a generic term that overlaps with interpreting, it technically refers solely to people who work with written texts. One of the biggest differences between interpreters and translators is that translators tend to have a bit more time to do their work (though tight deadlines still exist). Though reading and writing is different from listening and speaking, the end goal of the translator is the same as the interpreter: make the meaning come across.

Types Of Translation By Method

This article is primarily about humans, but machines are now a central part of translation. When we talk about “method” here, we mainly mean “how much a translation depends on computers.”

Human Translation — this is translation where a human does all or nearly all the work. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have other tools at their disposal (an online bilingual dictionary surely wouldn’t make this a computer translation), but a human is the one crafting the translated text.

Machine Translation — as you might guess, machine translation is when a computer does the work. The technology has certainly come a long way in the past few decades, but machine translation is still very imperfect, especially when compared to a skilled multilingual translator.

Hybrid Translation — a more and more common type of translation involves humans and computers working together. Often, this means that a text will be machine translated, but then a human will check it to ensure it sounds natural. The benefit is that it can save translators a lot of time, but it may actually make the work harder with complicated texts that use many idioms, double-meanings or technical terminology.

Types Of Translator By Content

There are several ways to categorize translators by what they’re translating. Religious translation, for example, can be its own field, because translating sacred texts is a matter of contentious debate. At its simplest, there are two broad categories all translation falls into: literary and informative.

Literary Translators

Literary translation is the act of moving any written work of art from one language to another. This can be essays, novels, short stories, poetry or any other creative form of writing.

Literary translation is often given special attention because it presents translators with a unique challenge. With literature, the form that the writing takes is often just as important as the content. A translator has to determine which features of a work are most important to preserve.

Take, for example, the many questions translators asks themselves when working on a poem. How important is it to keep the same number of syllables in each line as the original? Does the poem need to rhyme? Do the metaphors and similes make sense once they’re translated? What about all the other auditory features, like alliteration and assonance?

Literary translators have to start out with the idea that there’s no such thing as a “perfect translation.” Then, they have to decide which features of the original text are most important to preserve. The result is that two literary translators will never create exactly the same translation, and some may be wildly different. Arguments over good and bad translations have been going on for thousands of years.

With all the above considerations, literary translation should be considered an art of its own. And yet, literary translators still have to fight to get the credit they deserve, with their names rarely being added to the covers of books they worked on. People often expect the work of translation to be invisible, providing as smooth a transition from one language to another, but literary translators play a vital role.

Informative Translators

While literary translation gets a lot of attention, the vast majority of translation falls under the umbrella of “informative translation.” The ultimate goal of this kind of translation is to make the meaning as clear as possible when moving from one language to another. While informative translators don’t have to worry about literary style, that doesn’t make this task necessarily easier.

All types of translation require skills that go beyond a knowledge of multiple languages. It requires training and possibly certification to work as an informative translator. And depending on what’s being translated, the stakes can be very high. While there’s no such thing as unskilled translation, there are certain industries that require specialized knowledge.

  • Judicial Translation — legal documents and texts in a judicial setting (marriage licenses, contracts, wills, court proceedings).
  • Legal Translation — legal texts outside of a judicial setting (law manuals, law school textbooks). While related to judicial translation and requiring similar skill sets, the two are often treated separately.
  • Medical Translation — medical paperwork, prescription information, clinical trial reports and more. Medical translators are held to a very high level of accuracy (for obvious reasons).
  • Scientific Translation — a broad category of translating that covers any kind of scientific writing.
  • Financial Translation — involves banking documentation, tax forms and anything else related to money.
  • Technical Translation — the term “technical translation” refers to two different things. A technical translator might work on things like user manuals, memos and guidebooks that are meant for people who don’t necessarily work in technical fields, or they might translate engineering texts and IT documentation.

The list could easily go on, with translations needed in countless industries around the world. No matter which field a translator works in, they will need training on the best practices for conveying information in various languages.

Where Translators And Interpreters Meet

There is a certain amount of overlap between translators and interpreters. Sight translation interpreting, for example, involves someone reading a document and interpreting it aloud in a different language in real-time. And while less documented, there are almost certainly cases where people have translated spoken language onto a page automatically.

The boundary between the two terms is somewhat fluid, and it’s getting murkier as computers do more and more translation work. For example, if you have a voice assistant translate something from English to Spanish, is that considered interpreting? If you take one thing away from this discussion, though, it should be that both translators and interpreters are central to making sure that people are able to access the information they need in the language they know.

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