Translation and Interpreting: differences and similarities


by Eleftheria Tigka, Vendor Manager at Commit Global

Two sides of the same coin

Translation and interpreting can be viewed as two sides of the same coin since they are both considered language services and their purpose is communication across cultures. The study of translation has a very long history, but so does interpreting, since it was present in Ancient Egypt, as studies have shown. The demand for both translation and interpreting has grown in the recent years, boosted by an increase in the mobility of people and commodities and by globalization in general.

What is the difference and why is it confusing?

Translation and interpreting are served by highly trained professional linguists, usually with a Master’s degree in their respective discipline, deep knowledge of more than one language and respect towards languages. Both translators and interpreters convey the message of their client into another language. Therefore, the difficulty in their differentiation is understandable.

Different medium

Interpreters: They talk.

According to The Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), interpreting is the facilitation of spoken or signed language communication between users of different languages. Interpreters deal with spoken language in real time (simultaneous interpreting) or almost real time (consecutive interpreting).

Translators: They write.

Translators convert the written word from one language into another, unless we are talking about sight translation, that is the oral interpreting of a written text.

It is interesting to know that there are not many professionals who are both interpreters and translators, given the different approach to the service and the different training and skill sets required.

Different means

Translation and interpreting can be different not only in their medium but also in their means: Interpreting(Simultaneous, Consecutive, Escort/Travel Interpreting or Whisper Interpreting) can be on-site with the interpreter present, on the spot. With telephone or video interpreting, the people using an interpreter are in the same room, but the interpreter provides his/her services over the phone or via a video link.

Interpreters may use headphones and a microphone or a notepad for taking notes, whereas the tools a translator uses are entirely different. Translators work on the written text and the process takes place after the creation of the original text, so they can use computers and CAT tools (Assisted Translation or Computer Aided), translation memories, online sources, dictionaries and glossaries, having considerably more time to work with a text. Translation does not have to be done in real time, or even in real order.

Different process

Translation and interpreting are also different in their process: translators look for words, sentences and meanings, understanding the thoughts expressed in one language and rendering them using the appropriate nuances of another language. They produce an accurate target text that is true to the original. After all, translation is not just reworking a text from one language to another, it is also adapting it culturally. Translators need excellent writing skills.

On the other hand, interpreters must capture tone of voice, emotions and other elements of the spoken language to convey accurate meaning, as spoken language can be more informal or vague than written language. Interpreters can even act as mediators in certain cases, carrying the cultural features of the spoken word from language to language, and they always need to have interpersonal skills and be charismatic public speakers.

Communication across cultures

Translation and interpreting, however, are more than linguistic work. Neither involves simply replacing a word in one language with the corresponding word in another language. They involve communication across cultures and cultural sensitivity. Translation and interpreting always involve both language and culture, interchangeably.