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What’s the difference between translation and interpretation?

Simona Pralovska Ciferník03.09.2020 For Customers Reading time: 4 min.
translation vs interpretation

Translation and interpretation often get mistaken for one another. While at first glance these professions might seem very similar, they are actually quite different.

Translation vs interpretation

The main difference is that translation refers to written information and interpreting refers to spoken information.

However, there are many more differences between translation and interpretation, and between the roles of a translator and an interpreter.

Let's begin with the fundamentals terms.

What is translation?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines translation as “an act, process, or instance of rendering from one language into another”.

Put simply, translation is transferring written text from one (source) language to another (target) language while conveying the original meaning of the text.

What is interpretation?

Interpreting is the oral reproduction of spoken language.

Interpreting mainly focuses on paraphrasing content. Translation, on the other hand, is more exact (although translators should never translate word-for-word, as this can leave out some of the implied meanings).

Differences between translation and interpretation - infographics

Types of translation

Different texts require different translation processes.

  • Legal translation – proper terminology, a specific style and correct grammar are essential. The translation should be exact, unemotional and unambiguous.
    Documents: contracts, business agreements, legislation, employment documents, merger and acquisition documents etc.
  • Technical translation – the translation must be exact and faithful to the original text.
    Documents: booklets, manuals, guides, patents, technical standards etc.
  • Medical translation – requires clarity and accuracy, as well as legislative compliance for use in the target country.
    Documents: medical reports, clinical trials, written information on medicines, manuals for medical equipment etc.
  • Financial translation – the translation should be incredibly precise—the numbers matter.
    Documents: auditors’ reports, annual financial reports, bank records, financial statements, invoices etc.
  • Website/software localisation – localisation focuses on the target country rather than the target language. The text should be adapted to local conventions, and the translators are often limited by predefined maximum text lengths.
    Documents: software, mobile apps, websites, documentation, user guides etc.
  • Marketing translation – the translation should be creative and thoroughly adapted to the target audience.
    Documents: presentations, brochures, leaflets, slogans, newsletters, social media communication etc.
  • Certified translation – the translations are mainly used for public and state administration communications.
    Documents: birth and marriage certificates, criminal records, diplomas, certificates, contracts, court judgements etc.
  • Literary translation – emphasises appropriate cultural nuances, humour translation, feelings, emotions and the author’s unique literary style.
    Documents: novels, stories, poems, plays, verses etc.

Types of interpretation

Interpreting is divided into two main types:

  • Simultaneous interpreting (also called live interpreting) – spoken text is interpreted from one language into another almost without delay. Specialised equipment is required.
  • Consecutive interpreting (also called gradual interpreting) – spoken word is interpreted into the target language in parts or sentences.

Each type suits different situations. Consecutive interpreting is mostly used for lectures, seminars, audits, press conferences, business meetings or presentations.

While simultaneous interpreting suits conferences, congresses, state visits, public lectures and training sessions.

Read more about interpreting types here.

Language skills

Both translators and interpreters necessarily have an excellent command of both their mother tongue and a foreign language. But each one requires this skill in different ways.

translator’s main task is translating texts from the source language to the target language, meaning they must have a deep knowledge of grammar and stylistics. They must also be capable of playing with words, so that the text affects the reader in a perfectly natural way.

Most professional translators translate exclusively into their mother tongue. Only rarely will they know a second (foreign) language at the same level as their own. Of course, exceptions do exist.

On the other hand, an interpreter must be capable of communicating in both languages without hesitation. They must have a flawless command of the spoken language, and they must speak clearly and with proper articulation.

Personality traits

Translator

  • detail oriented
  • perfectionist
  • analytical
  • patient
Interpreter

  • excellent communication skills
  • ability to work under pressure
  • multitasking
  • good listener

Above all, a translator should be detail-oriented and a perfectionist, and they should be dissatisfied with the first solution offered. Moreover, an analytical and patient character is important, because researching and finding specific terms can take many long minutes.

Beyond excellent communication skills, a basic requirement for an interpreter is the ability to work under pressure. When interpreting, they must constantly concentrate and work in top gear. This is because they are listening to what the speaker says, understanding the information, processing it, remembering it then reproducing the same meaning in a different language. And all of that is even more difficult during simultaneous interpreting, where the interpreter is listening and speaking at the same time.

Still think interpreting isn’t so difficult? Try watching your favourite film or series and repeat the actors’ lines. You can even repeat them in the same language to make it easier. You’ll quickly realise that if you stumble over just one sentence, you won’t be able to catch up, and you’ll have to leave something out. To try something more advanced, interpret the dialogue into a foreign language. If you participated in this little experiment, share your experience in the comments. How long did you last while “interpreting”? 🙂

Work tools

Translators utilise various work tools that help, and somewhat simplify, their complex work. These include translation support tools (CAT tools), as well as Microsoft Word. For the final translation to achieve the required quality, translators must utilise the available reference materials, translation memories and dictionaries.

On the other hand, interpreters don’t have “conveniences” such as these. They can study materials beforehand, but they are not always available. However, even with thorough preparation, they must remain highly alert and ready to react promptly, since the situation can turn in any direction at any point.

What do they have in common?

More than anything, it’s a love for languages. Whether they work with written or spoken language, translators and interpreters are tasked with reproducing the information appropriately, so that it’s understandable for the target audience. They must be conscious of cultural specificities, too. If they’re not, certain unfortunate situations can occur.

Both professions also require specialisation in one or more fields. Translators and interpreters need to understand the topic thoroughly, so that the information is conveyed accurately.

Professional translating and interpreting services

Whether you need to translate your website or legal contract, or you need to organise a conference, you should always work with trained experts.

Professional translators and interpreters usually specialise in a few areas. This guarantees that they are familiar with the terminology, which increases the translation quality.

For those utilising translation or interpreting services regularly or requiring translation into multiple languages, hiring a translation agency is the best choice. They will provide all of the necessary services and languages under one roof, and, thanks to modern software, you will get your translations faster and cheaper.

Both professions are unquestionably appealing, and becoming a professional translator or interpreter requires years of hard work. Which role do you find more attractive and why? Let us know in the comments below.

Simona Pralovska
Simona Pralovska
Vendor manager

I began my journey at LEXIKA during my university days in 2017. LEXIKA, the people that form part of it, and the translation industry have grown on me since then. One of the day-to-day challenges I have to face is finding new talented translators. Furthermore, I take care of developing good and open relationships with our long-standing translators who make it possible for us to do what we love. Over time, I was put in charge of marketing activities and internal HR. I don’t have to worry about my job turning into a daily grind and I learn something new every day. ?

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