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What Is the Difference Between an Interpreter and a Translator?

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In our increasingly global society, often, it’s necessary to communicate with an international audience, whether it’s through an event that’s broadcasted across the world, a multinational corporation or even an individual author who wants to translate their work to reach a global audience. To speak with people in their native languages, it’s often imperative to seek interpretation or translation services. But there’s a lot of confusion about the difference between interpretation and translation. Most people incorrectly assume that the two disciplines are the same, but each requires unique skill sets.

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What Is an Interpreter?

Interpreters translate the spoken word orally from a native or source language to a target language. Interpretation typically takes place on-site, for instance, at a conference, in a courtroom, or a meeting. But there are some exceptions, such as telephone interpreting.

Interpreters translate in two directions. They translate from the source language to the target language, and then from the target language to the source language. Interpretation is done live, either through a digital audio connection or on the spot, and can be done simultaneously or consecutively. Consecutive interpretation is where the speaker delivers a few sentences at a time, and an interpreter relays them to the receiver once the thought is completed. Whereas, simultaneous interpretation calls for the interpreter to listen and translate the content of the speaker while the speaker is still talking. Since these two types of interpretation are quite distinct, interpreters will need to go through extensive qualification testing before they will likely be hired on for any long-term role. If the interpreter is looking to work in a judicial or medical setting, then they’ll need to have additional certifications.

Also, an interpreter transposes the source language within context while preserving its original intent, while rephrasing colloquialisms, idioms, and other culturally specific references in a way the target audience understands. An interpreter’s only resources are excellent memory, experience, and quick reflexes. 

What Is a Translator?

Translators only translate in one direction. They translate written text from the source language to the target language. A translator uses several resources to help them transpose the given written text accurately into the target language. Sometimes, a translator must be a subject expert to transpose technical text accurately. They must also have a cultural understanding of the target language, and often they’re native speakers. There are a variety of qualities that make a good translator.

Translators analyze the source text and conduct additional research to preserve the original content’s tone of voice and intent during translation. In addition, they use computer-aided translation tools to ensure accuracy. Since, translators need to take time out to conduct additional research, they are not required to translate on the spot, unlike interpreters, who must be efficient in delivering the message in unison with the speaker. 

Furthermore, there are various areas of translation where translators require special expertise to carry out a professional translation. These areas include medical translation and technical translation. In these instances, a translator must be familiar with the terminology and they must have the specific background knowledge to understand the context.  

Different Interpretation and Translation Services

Types of Translation Services

There is a wide range of translation services in the industry. The primary categories of translation include general document translation and translation in specific subject matters, such as medical translation, scientific translation, and legal translation.

General translation is characterized by the use of ordinary vocabulary and the language does not require any knowledge of special terminologies. However, that’s not the case for subject-specific disciplines, such as technical translation, where the writing is likely full of industry specific terminology.

Other important translation services out there include literary translation, subtitling, commercial translation, and notarized translation.

Types of Interpretation Services

A simultaneous interpreter typically works from a soundproof booth, for instance, during a conference. They speak into a microphone and their audience hears it through their headphones. The interpretation is done at the same time as the speaker is delivering his speech.

Whispered or chuchotage interpretation is a less common type of simultaneous interpreting. Whispered interpreting doesn’t require any technical equipment because the interpreters sit diagonally behind the recipient, interpreting quietly for them.

Telephone interpreters work in different ways. For instance, the conversation partners may be in one location at one telephone and the interpreter is at the other end of the telephone line, or the conversation partners could be in different rooms and connected through the telephone, while the interpreter is connected with them through a conference call.

A consecutive interpreter takes notes while the speaker is speaking and translates the content once the speaker has finished. Since interpretation takes up some time, meetings may take longer when working with a consecutive interpreter.

A sign language interpreter either translates from one sign language to another or from spoken to a sign language.

Final Thoughts

The difference between a Spanish interpreter and a Spanish translator serves as a perfect example to highlight the difference between interpreters and translators. A Spanish translator, for instance, translates the written word while a Spanish interpreter translates the spoken word. A Spanish interpreter works on-site, for example, in an office, translating back and forth between a Spanish speaker and an English speaker, and a Spanish translator works at a computer in an office or online, translating Spanish texts.

Regardless of whether you need an interpreter or a translator, ensure you’re working with a professional with in-depth knowledge of their field because there’s nothing worse than a message being lost in translation.  

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