• Nikolaj Widenmann

Translator and Interpreter - What's the Difference?

Updated: Nov 6, 2018


Today (September 28) is #InternationalTranslationDay, so I thought I'd provide a brief explanation of what a translator is.


Often I receive a request for a “Spanish translator”. This usually prompts me to ask for a clarification: Do they need someone to translate a document, or do they need an interpreter for spoken language?

The media tends to use the terms "translator" and "interpreter" interchangeably, typically reporting that someone was “speaking through a translator” when the linguist involved is really an interpreter. Earlier this year, even members of Congress referred to President Trump's interpreter as a "translator" when they demanded that she testify about what was said at the Helsinki summit.

So what’s the difference?

The difference between the two professions – translation and interpretation – is really fairly simple: Translators translate written text; interpreters interpret spoken or sign language.

What difference does it make?

Many people assume that any bilingual person can translate or interpret at will, and that a translator or an interpreter can perform either function. However, that would be akin to suggesting that any native speaker of English is qualified to speak in public or write for publication at a professional level, or that a technical writer is by definition also a skilled orator.

In reality, hiring a translator – who works full time in front of a computer – may not necessarily be the best choice when a court interpreter is required for a criminal trial. Likewise, an interpreter who has never read a balance sheet – let alone translated one – is not the best choice for translating your company’s financial statements.

Translation and interpreters are professional occupations. Though overlapping in many areas, such as the obvious need for linguistic skills in at least two languages, each discipline involves unique skills. In addition, interpreters and translators typically specialize in certain specific fields, such as law or medicine.

While bilingual language skills are an obvious prerequisite for either profession, the necessary skills extend well beyond merely being bilingual.

Translation skills:

  • Bilingual language skills: Fluency in both languages is a must.

  • Target language = native language: Most translators translate into their native language; this is the language with which they are most familiar and in which they are less likely to make mistakes that are influenced by another language.

  • Writing: A translator is a writer. High-level writing skills are a must for any translator. After all, translators spend their time rewriting text, albeit into another language.

  • Not just word swapping: Translation is not about replacing words in Language A with words in Language B. The translator has to consider the message as a whole and the meaning, then create a text in the target language that renders the same meaning. In most cases, the target text should read as though it had originally been drafted in that language; it should not look like a translation at all.

  • Subject knowledge: It’s not enough to understand the source language; to ensure the use of the proper terminology, the translator must understand the subject matter as well. For this reason, translators specialize in specific areas, such as legal translation, microbiology, medical translation, financial translation, etc. Writers write best about topics that they are familiar with.

  • Research: A translator’s research extends well beyond a bilingual dictionary. In addition to general dictionaries, a translator’s library should house volumes of various specialty dictionaries, bilingual as well as monolingual. As a #legaltranslator, I use bilingual legal dictionaries, as well as Black’s Law Dictionary. But dictionaries are just the starting point; inaccuracies abound in printed volumes, and terms frequently appear that are not found in dictionaries. A good translator will often scour the Internet to find examples of how various terms are used in the real world. This includes parallel documents – real-world document examples from both languages, such as contracts, financial statements, letters rogatory, etc. This will enable the translator to determine how a specific document type is normally worded in the target language.

  • Cultural awareness: Language is the reflection of the culture where it is spoken. Awareness of both the source language and target language culture is crucial to enable the translator to create a text that makes sense within the context of a culture.

Interpretation skills:

  • Bilingual language skills: Oral fluency in both languages is a must.

  • Both ways: In many settings, interpreters interpret both ways, even if they have a slight foreign accent in one of the languages. As a federally certified #courtinterpreter, I interpret legal proceedings into Spanish for Spanish-speaking defendants or witnesses. When the Spanish-speaker makes a statement, I interpret into English for the court.

  • Multitasking: Interpretation is a multitasking discipline involving intense listening while rendering speech into a different language, using cues such as body language, facial expressions, etc., all while ignoring background noise (coughing, slamming doors, etc.)

  • Quick thinking: The interpreter does not have time to place a legal proceeding on hold to spend half an hour researching a term.

  • No editing: What the interpreter says is what is delivered. There will be no editing or proofreading.

  • Public speaking: An interpreter speaks in public and should be comfortable speaking in front of audiences large and small (conferences, juries, judges, doctors, etc.).

  • Short-term memory skills: In the consecutive mode (see below), the interpreter has to remember what is said.

  • Code of ethics: Court interpreters are bound by codes of ethics that dictate how to conduct themselves in the courtroom and what to do and not to do while interpreting.

  • Modes of interpretation: Interpreter should be proficient the following modes of interpretation:

  • Research: Interpreters also research terms using the same tools as translators. However, this research usually takes place before or after a job, or while another interpreter is interpreting.

Translation and interpretation are two related disciplines that often intersect. However, they differ in the skill sets needed to excel. A good translator is not necessarily a good interpreter, and vice versa; in fact, most translators do not interpret, and most interpreters do not translate full time (though personally I am active and certified in both professions).

Knowing whether you need a translator or an interpreter is crucial. Awareness of the uniqueness of each profession will aid you in selecting the type of professional who best suits your language needs, whether in writing or whether something needs to be said out loud.

WTS Translations is a document translation provider specializing in the fields of law, business, finance, and medicine. Click here to learn more or to order a translation.


Happy #InternationalTranslationDay.

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