Translator vs interpreter: what is the difference and when is each needed?

Traductor VS intèrpret


In the world of interlinguistic communication two concepts are often used indiscriminately due to their apparent similarities: translator and interpreter. These similarities may cause confusion among the general public, who may not be fully aware of the differences between the two jobs.

If we look up “translate” in Collins Dictionary, for example, we can see “interpret” listed as one of its meanings. In a certain way, this equates translation with interpreting. That is because the purpose of both disciplines is to facilitate communication between people who speak different languages. This could lead you to believe the terms are interchangeable, yet if you look at what they actually do, you will notice that, despite their common goal, their work within this same field is different.

In this post, we will explore the key differences between translators and interpreters, and we will seek to set out the nuances that make both of them essential figures in intercultural communication.

Differences between translation and interpreting

In a broad sense, translation consists of expressing in one language what has previously been expressed in another. This, however, can refer to both spoken or written text, and herein lies the first key difference between a translator and an interpreter. Translators transform a written text from one language into another, while interpreters do the same thing with spoken text. This means they must work in real time.

Origin of both figures

Expressing in one language what has been said in another is a key feature of cultural exchange and communication between different linguistic groups, which is why its existence harks back to the dawn of human civilisation. It is hard to specify when exactly this activity first appeared. We can say that this sort of communication was born long before the use of writing, so we can claim the figure of the interpreter came into existence before that of the translator.

Translators and interpreters have been key in many stages of history, such as, for example, during the Roman Empire or the Egyptian Empire, which dominated large areas where very different languages were spoken.

At other moments in history, such as the different stages of colonisation, interpreters allowed communication with leaders of native populations, which was essential in order to establish alliances or negotiate peace treaties or terms of surrender. On the other hand, they also contributed to missionaries’ work of evangelisation, since their work as mediators facilitated preaching in local languages and the spread of Christianity.

Later, with the significant growth of diplomacy, translators and interpreters played a crucial role in the communication between leaders and representatives from different countries at summits, treaties and international negotiations. Simultaneous interpreting, in fact, was key at the Nuremberg trials, which is where this discipline is considered to have been born.

Nowadays, translators and interpreters play a vital role in knocking down language barriers and enable comprehension among different cultures and linguistic communities. Their contribution is essential not only for the development of international relations and diplomacy, but also for international trade and scientific cooperation.

The roles of translator and interpreter

Both translators and interpreters are very important in a wide variety of fields and industries, since their work is essential for effective communication among people who speak different languages. We list some of these roles below.

The different roles of a translator

The different roles of an interpreter

Shared skills among translators and interpreters

As we have noted, translators and interpreters are both in the business of interlinguistic communication, and that is why they need to possess some of the same skills. These include:

Language skills

Both translators and interpreters must be highly proficient in at least two languages, the source and target languages. They must have a solid control of grammar, vocabulary, idioms and linguistic structures in the languages they work with.

Cultural comprehension

Translators and interpreters must have great awareness of cultural traits which may affect conveyance of the message. Understanding the customs, traditions and social norms of the cultures involved is key to effective communication and to creating an emotional connection with the audience.

Adaptability and flexibility

Translation and interpreting require professionals who are adaptable and flexible in their work, who can adjust their style to the message’s register, context, audience and purpose.

Concentration and attention to detail

Both translators and interpreters require great concentration skills and must pay close attention during their work. Translators must focus on the text’s details to ensure accuracy, whilst interpreters must stay alert to listen to the message and transmit it without mistakes.

Use of technology

It is common for both translators and interpreters to use sector-specific technological tools to help them improve their results. Translators can use computer-assisted translation (CAT) software as an aid, using translation memories and glossaries which will also help them maintain terminological coherence, whilst interpreters might use interpreting equipment and specialist software at conferences.

Ethical responsibility

Both translators and interpreters are ethically responsible for maintaining confidentiality and impartiality in their work. They must respect the privacy of the information they handle and avoid giving their own interpretation or personal bias to the content.

Differences between a translator’s and an interpreter’s job

Although translators and interpreters are language professionals that work to facilitate communication between different languages, there are key differences in their focus and skills. As we have noted, the key difference lies in the medium in which they work, i.e., written text vs spoken discourse in real time. However, this distinction entails other differences such as some of the skills required or the job context.

Written vs spoken

Translators specialise in the translation of written text which must be handed in prior to a set deadline. Therefore, they can research any information they may need to translate the document, and they can revise their work before handing it in. On the other hand, interpreters work “live” on spoken text, which is why they cannot do any research nor go back to fix any possible mistakes. They usually prepare the necessary resources (glossaries, texts, etc.) before starting interpreting.

Necessary skills

Although it is true that the skills needed by translators and interpreters are very similar (not in vain translation and interpreting studies are shared), there are some differences. Both need research skills and the ability to contextualise a text, ensuring their work is precise and culturally appropriate, whilst interpreters must also hone their listening, comprehension and information-processing skills. Moreover, they must be mentally agile and have an excellent short-term memory in order to retain information at the same time as they are interpreting.

Job context

Translators usually work in spaces which they control, such as an office or their own home, where they have access to resources, dictionaries and translation tools whilst doing their work. Interpreters, on the other hand, do their work in more dynamic environments, which are usually public or open, such as conferences rooms, courts, hospitals or trips, and they must be ready to face unexpected changes.

Ampersand, over 25 years of interlinguistic experience

At Ampersand, we have been the trusted language partners of companies and individuals that need written translations (specialised, sworn or technical). Our team of experts works to offer high-quality translation services in a wide range of industries and sectors, enabling our clients to communicate effectively in an increasingly diverse and connected world.

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