What is the difference between translation and interpreting?

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Professional translators and interpreters are often frustrated by the tendency of people outside the language services industry to use the terms ‘translation’ and ‘interpreting’ interchangeably. Though some linguists practise both crafts, others work solely as translators or interpreters, so it is important to distinguish between the two, especially when commissioning language work.

If you have a written text that needs to be translated into another language, you will need translation services. If you need help with oral communication in a different language, you need interpreting services.

Both professions require practitioners to have a high level of proficiency in their native and second languages, known as their ‘working languages’. The difference lies in the types of skills needed.

Professional translators

Professional translators only translate texts from their second language into their native language(s) – and never the other way around – so they must be able to write well in their native language. They must be able to understand the source text which is to be translated, and grasp cultural and linguistic nuances. Translation is not simply replacing one word with another, it is to relay meaning and produce a text with the same register and tone for a new audience.

To assist the process, translators use a range of research tools and reference materials. For instance, medical translators build up a library of medical dictionaries and glossaries of industry terms. Over time, they accumulate experience in specific fields through working on a range of texts, from email exchanges to technical instruction manuals. Creative linguists may choose to work on advertising slogans, while others may find satisfaction in flawlessly reproducing financial reports.

Professional interpreters

While translators are able to use all their resources while working on a text, interpreters must prepare before assignments. Interpreters must be able to alternate between each language verbally on the spot, so they may not have time to refer to dictionaries or look up a term online. This means they must research the assignment topics thoroughly and ensure they are equipped with the right terminology.

However, interpreters are often faced with the unexpected, so they must have the capacity to relay information instantly, including colloquial expressions and culturally-specific jokes. Interpreters can find themselves in a variety of settings, from a doctor’s surgery to the factory floor, and there may be multiple people to interpret for, such as during a business meeting. Public speaking skills and an ability to adapt are therefore essential.

Find out more about our expert translation and interpreting services on our dedicated pages.