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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.
What’s The Difference Between Translators And Interpreters?

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 slightly 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 Interpreters By Method

There is no official breakdown of the types of interpreters there are, but here are some of the biggest categories of interpreting, using the way that they convey information.

  • 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 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 Interpreters 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. It’s up to the conference to decide exactly how they’re employed, though.
  • Community Interpreters — this is a broad category, covering all interpreting work that goes on in communities of any size. One of the most common examples is the sign language interpreters who are needed during storm emergencies to make sure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can get needed information. While that’s an extreme example, interpreters are needed in all kinds of settings, from school committee meetings to polling places (though they’re not always available).

Translators

While “translator” is starting to be used to refer to anyone who translates anything, 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

As with interpreters, there are lots of 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. To make it simple, though, there are two main categories that most types of translation fit into.

  • Informative Translators — this type focuses on making sure that information — technical, scientific, political or whatever else — is translated as clearly as possible. The meaning is paramount.
  • Literary Translators — literary translators have a little bit more leeway than informative translators, because they’re working with art where the language itself is important. There are different schools of thought on literary translation — word-for-word and sense-for-sense, among others — and a single text can have wildly different translations.

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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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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