How Do Translation and Interpretation Differ?

There is a common misunderstanding about those who work in the field of translation and interpretation. Sometimes these professionals are referred to using the umbrella term ‘translators’, and are believed to be linguists capable of providing all kinds of linguistic services simply because they possess a very advanced knowledge of a foreign language. This assumption is not only incorrect, but furthermore plays down the level of training and skill required to work effectively in translation and interpretation respectively.

Translators and interpreters have much in common. They both start life as linguists, when they acquire competency in foreign language(s) either through formal education, as a result of a bi- or sometimes even trilingual upbringing, or from having grown up in various countries where different languages are spoken. Many of those who choose to embark on careers as professional linguists gain a professional qualification in translation, interpretation, or both – the mere ability to speak a foreign language very well usually isn’t enough to work in the field, and neither can a qualified translator automatically do an interpreter’s job, or vice versa. While it is possible to work in translation and interpretation without a formal qualification in the field, it is less common and more difficult to do so.

Despite their having many similarities, there is one fundamental difference between these two forms of cross-cultural communication. Translation deals with the written word, while interpretation the spoken one.

So, how does the work of translators and interpreters differ?

Translators work with written texts and have (a relative amount of) time to think their work through, edit it and revise it before deciding it is complete and delivering it before an agreed deadline. Their work is largely done on a computer, and so they can work from almost anywhere – but normally from home (in the case of freelance translators), or in an office (in the case of in-house translators), and are able to consult any reference texts, if need be. Since translators often work alone as many are self-employed individuals, it can be quite a solitary job.

Interpreters deal with oral communication, often working in conferences or the public sector (for example in courts, for police forces, and more), but also for private clients who are frequently individuals requiring interpretation services. They work under significant amounts of pressure, and, unlike translators, once they have rendered their message in the target language, they can’t return to their work and change it. There is therefore a pressing need for them to get things right the first time round. Interpreters, especially conference interpreters, tend to prepare for their interpreting sessions beforehand to make sure they understand the context of what it is they are interpreting. It is a somewhat more social job than translating, since interpreters always work alongside other people.

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