What’s the Difference Between an Interpreter and a Translator?

Two Black females hugging each other from the side and smiling. They are on a beach. One is a translator, and the other is an interpreter.

Source: Thought Catalog on Pexel

In the language service industry, we sometimes joke that it’s the largest industry you’ve never heard of. So the fact that you’re aware of it means you’re ahead of the curve.

And if you thought interpreters and translators were the same thing, you’re not alone! It’s a common misconception, and people frequently use those terms interchangeably. 

But once you understand the unique roles that interpreters and translators play, you’ll be able to request the right specialist for the job (and beef up your knowledge for trivia night). 

Here are the three most important things you should know about the differences between interpreters and translators.

1. Interpreters and translators perform different tasks

Even though interpreters and translators both fall under the umbrella of language services, their job duties are quite distinct. 

Translators work with text — that is, they convert the written word from one language to another. They translate all kinds of written documentation, such as: 

  • Books and articles
  • Medical records
  • Legal contracts
  • Marketing materials
  • User manuals
  • Websites

Interpreters work with oral speech or signed languages; they render spoken or signed dialogue from one language into another. 

Interpreters can work in person or remotely over the phone or video, helping non-English-speaking individuals communicate. They work with hospitals, courts, call centers, schools, and more.

Related: What Are Phone Interpreter Services and Why You Might Need Them

2. Interpreters and translators have different skill sets

While both the interpreting and translation professions adapt content between languages, they involve different skills to accomplish this.

Translators need in-depth knowledge of both the source and target language’s vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, syntax, and grammar. They find the most precise way to render text into another language. 

Interpreters also need to be highly accurate, with a large vocabulary in both languages. But they also have to concentrate on speed, delivery, and reproducing the speaker’s non-verbal elements, like tone of voice and inflection. Excellent memory retention skills are a must for interpreters.

3. Interpreters and translators use different tools

Since interpreters facilitate conversations in real-time, their arsenal of resources — and how they use them — is different from translators.

They rely on note-taking and tools like glossaries and translation websites they can quickly reference when needed. They usually don’t have the luxury of time to look up unfamiliar words during an interpreting session, so they study up on terminology in advance to ensure they’re prepared. 

Translators work with dictionaries, translation memory software, and computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools that can help them translate faster and more accurately. They’re able to spend more time making sure they select exactly the right word or phrase to capture the original text. 

… but they share common ground, too

Although the delivery is different, both interpreters and translators convert information from one language into another.

Just like translators, some interpreters might specialize in a specific area of expertise, like medical or legal. More often, translators and interpreters are generalists. They are able to pivot between different subject matters. 

And the majority of professional translators and interpreters prefer to work as independent contractors. This gives them the freedom to work with a variety of organizations. But they can both be found working as internal employees, too. 

Related: 4 Facts You Need To Know about Freelance Interpreters

Can you be both an interpreter and a translator? 

While there are professionals who can interpret and translate, more often than not, someone specializes in one or the other. That’s because it can take years to hone these areas of expertise. 

These jobs also attract different personalities. Someone who loves working in solitude to carefully translate literary novels might not enjoy the pressure of interpreting conversations over phone or video — or vice versa. 

Despite their often invisible roles working behind the scenes, interpreters and translators are invaluable when it comes to helping people communicate across languages and cultures.

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