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How to Discern Between a Translator and an Interpreter

When you translate you interpret, and when you interpret you translate, but translation and interpretation are not the same thing.

As professions, translation and interpretation have shared procedures and objectives which we describe and differentiate on our website: human translation and interpretation. Both translators and interpreters have to deal with idiomatic challenges in messages that they receive, interpret (in the sense of understanding and reformulating) and reproduce in a language different from the source language. The goal is communicational, but the type of communication is what changes.

First of all, interpretation is oral while translation is written. In both professions there are deadlines to meet. However, in translation a delivery date is set and time is given, hopefully in sufficient quantity, for the translator to research the subject matter and the terminology with which they will be working. Therefore, the translator must possess professional mastery both linguistically and as regards grammar, as they will not only be responsible for passing texts from one language to another but also for reviewing and editing them. Furthermore, the translator is obligated to convey even the tiniest detail, no matter how irrelevant it is for understanding the main idea. On the other hand, interpretation is spontaneous and is performed in the act. The interpreter does not have the time to do research, find synonyms and polish details of the message. The goal is for the receiver to understand the main idea correctly. In this transfer, the interpreter does not always manage to convey the “decorative elements” of a message, as it is their responsibility to communicate the main idea and move on to the next one simultaneously with the speaker or, in the case of interpreting with note-taking, to avoid the loss of new information due to excessive note-taking.

Likewise, and getting back to our Spanish-language post “¿En qué se diferencian la traducción y la interpretación?” (“What Differentiates Translation and Interpretation?”), interpretation is a social profession, as the interpreter works surrounded by people and is charged with translating the oral message of a speaker who they usually have in sight at the moment of performing their work. The interpreter uses their voice as their main work tool, without which they would not be able to carry out their task under any circumstance. To the contrary, the translator deals with print or virtual texts, their main work tool happens to be their hands and their communication with the client is informative, making it a more solitary profession.

In sum, and taking for granted that in both cases professional training is required, the translator must focus on the nitty-gritty, be detail oriented, analytical and organized; while the interpreter stands out due to their speed, functionality, precision and spontaneity. This does not preclude a single professional from being able to perform both jobs, as long as they are trained in how to weave together the roles demanded by each.