Translating and Interpreting

The Difference: Translating and Interpreting


On the surface, the difference between interpreting and translation is the mode of expression. Interpreters deal with spoken language and translate orally, while translators deal with written text, transforming the source text into a comprehensible and equivalent target text. Both interpreting and translation presuppose a love of language and deep knowledge of more than one language. However, the differences in the training, skills, and talents needed for each job are vast.

The key skill of a good translator is the ability to write well and express oneself clearly in the target language. That is why professional translators almost always work in only one direction, translating only into their native language. Even bilingual individuals rarely can express themselves in a given subject equally well in two languages, and many excellent translators are far from being bilingual. The key skills of the translator are the ability to understand the source language and the culture of the country where the text originated, and, using a good library of dictionaries and reference materials, render that material into the target language.

An interpreter, on the other hand, has to be able to translate in both directions, without the use of any dictionaries, on the spot. There are two types of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous.

Most people are familiar with simultaneous conference interpreting, in which the interpreter sits in a booth wearing a pair of headphones and speaking into a microphone. However, simultaneous interpreting is also used to interpret speeches or “whisper” into the ear of foreign dignitaries and guests. In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter can’t start interpreting until s/he understands the general meaning of the sentence. Depending on where the subject and the verb are located in the sentence, the interpreter may not be able to utter a single word until s/he heard the very end of the sentence in the source language. This should make it evident how hard the task of the interpreter really is: s/he needs to translate the sentence into the target language while simultaneously listening to and comprehending the next sentence.

During consecutive interpreting the speaker stops every 1-5 minutes (usually at the end of every “paragraph” or complete thought) and the interpreter then steps in to render what was said into the target language. A key skill involved in consecutive interpreting is note-taking, since few interpreters can memorize a full paragraph at a time without loss of detail.

In spite of the vast differences in the skills of translators and interpreters, besides deep knowledge of both languages, it is crucial that they also understand the subject matter of the text or speech they are translating. Translation and interpretation are not a matter of substituting words in one language for words in another. It is a matter of understanding the thought expressed in one language and then explaining it using the resources and cultural nuances of another language.