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Translation vs. Interpretation: What are the differences?

While it would make sense to assume translation and interpretation are synonyms for the same thing: changing language from one to another, in reality there is quite a difference. Both forms of linguistic science are equally important and we of course offer the highest quality available of both. However, we wanted to explain the real difference between what a translator and an interpreter actually do. Their skills are similar but different!

Both translators and interpreters change information from a source language to a target language. As a general rule, the translator/interpreter should be a native speaker of any source language. The major difference though is that translators generally work with the written word, whereas interpreters are working with the spoken word (or sign language), sometimes simultaneously. There is also simultaneous translation which is what might happen at a press conference that needs to be presented in real-time in multiple languages.

Interpreters generally work orally, changing an oral text from one language to another. In the majority of cases, from a foreign language into their mother tongue. Interpreters allow for the communication among people coming from different cultures, as well as linguistic backgrounds, as they are able to interpret the nuances of spoken phrases and ensure that they will be communicated correctly in the target language.

There are two types of interpretation: simultaneous and consecutive. Simultaneous interpretation might be used at meetings of heads of states, and is certainly used at all meeting of the European Commission, European Parliament, and many other government proceedings with international interaction. It is imperative that the correct meanings be conveyed, especially when it comes to diplomacy. We all know the phrase “lost in translation,” better put, it would be “lost in interpretation.” Other specific instances where interpretation is commonly used would be in legal settings, and as mentioned before, sign language interpretation.

For those who study translation, there is an emphasis on the capacity to analyze a written text and formulate it in another language so that it is completely comprehensive in the target language and for the target audience. This regards not just the words, but also the structure of the text and its arrangement. Translators must work with extreme precision and careful detail. Interpreters are trained less for precision and more for speed, as they are working more commonly in real time.

The skills that translators and interpreters need are generally interchangeable. Cultural sensitivity, industry experience (when applicable – technical or legal translation/interpretation absolutely), and fluency in two or more languages are imperative. Interpreters need to have particularly good listening skills, eloquence, and the ability to process two separate languages in their head instantaneously – not an easy skill! Translators have the luxuries of time and dictionaries when necessary.  To be an interpreter a degree in language or interpretation is generally necessary.

Translators, in contrast, need to have excellent writing skills, including the abilities to edit and proofread their own work, or that of their colleagues. They need to be able to handle time management effectively, as most translation work tends to be project based. In some cases, translators will need a security clearance such as when dealing with official public documents, court hearings, etc. Most translators have a college and/or post-graduate degree.

Their requirements may be more dependent on the industry they work in, as much of the language being translated may be quite technical (think of the food labels in Europe, for example).