Interpreter vs. Translator – What’s the Difference?

At first glance, and correctly so, the difference between a translator and interpreter is the medium through which they actually translate.

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An interpreter translates orally, on the spot, as someone speaks. A translator, on the other hand, works with written documents and materials, translating from a source language to a target one.

First the Similarities

When someone asks, “What is a translator,” the common answer is someone who is fluent in at least two languages and who can then express the words and meaning from one language to the other. And if someone asks, “What is an interpreter,” the answer would be the same.

Both have language fluencies and both use those fluencies to assist customers, clients, and organizations.

But rarely do translators work as interpreters, and vice versa. Why? Because there are differences in aptitude, training, and skills that are not always transferrable.

Skills Specific to a Translator

A skilled translator has an intimate understanding of the source language, including all of the cultural nuances that attend to that language. As well, he has the same understanding of the source language and is usually a native of that language. The written translations thus take into account the societal mores and norms that figure into language structure.

Because a translator works with written material, he can take his time to carefully conduct the translation, to guarantee accuracy and quality of final product.

The other important characteristic of translators is that they are often specialized in certain niches. Thus, a translator who works primarily with legal documents will have developed a thorough understanding of the terminology of both languages.

Skills Specific to an Interpreter

Interpreters must provide two-sided translations in the moment; they have no resource materials to use, as a translator does.

A second critical skill for an interpreter is listening – and this skill must be exceptional.

A third skill is that of memorization. When an individual speaks, the interpreter must remember exactly what was said in order to relay the words to the receiver with total accuracy. At the same time, they must translate idioms and other colloquialisms (as well as culturally unique references) so that the receiver can understand those as well.

Career Choice

Individuals who are highly proficient in languages obviously have a choice of becoming a translator or interpreter. And now that they know what is the difference between translation and interpretation, they may be able to make a better choice.

One thing to consider in this choice is your personality type. Remember, translators work primarily alone, producing documents and materials in writing, dealing with clients and sometimes with other translators, but often remotely.

Interpreters work far more with people, and they need to have a more extroverted personality in order to relate well to their clients. They work with those clients face-to-face. The other aspect of interpretation work may also involve travel, especially if an interpreter has expertise in more difficult or complex languages. And for those who enjoy travel, becoming an interpreter can be quite fulfilling.

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