What’s the difference between translation and interpreting?

As disciplines, interpreting and translation are closely related. So closely related, in fact, that many people would struggle to differentiate between the two.

Indeed, in workplaces across the world, the terms are commonly – though incorrectly – used interchangeably, even by those directly benefiting from the services of translators or interpreting professionals.

Such confusion is, to a certain extent, understandable. Both are professions for skilled linguists, attracting specialists with a passion for languages and their use. But still, translating and interpreting are distinct disciplines, each presenting their own challenges and requiring different skillsets and training.

Translators write, interpreters talk

At the most basic level, the difference between interpreting and translation is that of the medium used for converting one language into another. Quite simply, interpreters do their job orally, conveying into another language the spoken words of their clients, while translators deal with the written word.

Such a distinction is important as it is simple. So much so, in fact, that translation and interpretation are regarded as very distinct disciplines by nearly all major international organisations. The European Commission, for example, has a Directorate General (DG) for Translation, which in its own words “deals exclusively with written texts”, while “the spoken word is interpreted into other languages by the DG of Interpretation”. Similarly, both the European Union and the United Nations treat translation and interpretation separately, each with distinct departments staffed by highly-trained specialists.

To appreciate quite why everyone from the UN to the smallest agency regard translation and interpreting as related yet separate disciplines, it needs to be seen that the differences between the two goes far beyond the medium used.

For starters, as a general rule, most translators work in only one direction. That is, they convert written material from a ‘source’ language into a ‘target’ language – the latter of which is almost always their mother tongue. Not only do they need to be fully competent in the source language, they also need to have a thorough appreciation of its nuances, and even the social and cultural context of the text, so they can accurately convey the purpose of the original text into the chosen language – a specialist skill in itself. This means that a client who requires a document translating from Japanese into English and then a follow-up text from English to Japanese will usually hire two different translators – though, of course, there are exceptions to the rule.

Translators also have more time to work with a text, as well as resources like dictionaries upon which to draw. It’s not uncommon for a translator to spend a considerable amount of time analysing a single document. Again, translation is not simply a matter of replacing the words of one language with those of another, but about accurately conveying the meaning and context of the original document as well.

In comparison, interpreters almost always work in real time (known as simultaneous interpretation) or very close to it (consecutive interpretation), and so are unable to draw upon grammar books or other resources. Interpreters are also required to work at extreme speed. According to the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), a professional at the top of their field will be expected to interpret up to 150 words a minute compared to a rate of 2,000 words a day for a translator. Again, though, it’s not just a matter of literally replacing one word with another, but also of accurately conveying a speaker’s meaning and ideas, often drawing upon their rhythm, intonation and even gestures in order to achieve this.

Given all of this, as the University of Oxford Careers Service notes, for work as an interpreter, “instant reactions, a good memory and stamina are just as important as expertise in languages”. Throw in the fact that good interpreters also need to possess solid public speaking skills, a high level of general knowledge and a strong degree of self confidence, and it’s easy to see the extra challenges facing an interpreter working on-the-spot with clients, compared with a lone translator taking their time working with a written document.

As obvious as it may sound, what both translation and interpreting do have in common, however, is that preparation is essential for both. Interpreters must have a good background knowledge of a client’s field before taking on a job and usually only work in one particular field. Similarly, a good translator will have an excellent knowledge of the subject matter of the text with which they are working. In both cases, a keen sense of attention to detail and the ability to recall specialist terms and phrases, as well as jargon and niche vocabulary, are also vital.

Training and qualifications 

Both disciplines attract people with a passion for languages and linguistics, and most interpreters and translators start their careers in the same way – either with a language or linguistics degree or some real-world experience learning a second (or third or fourth…) tongue.

At Master’s degree level, two are treated as separate disciplines, allowing linguistics professionals to go down one path or the other. In particular, a postgraduate qualification in interpreting is almost essential for anyone trying to break into what is a highly competitive field – a degree in languages is rarely enough.

Most UK universities offer their postgraduate students the chance to specialise in a particular field of interpretation, for example, interpreting in the fields of science, law or finance, while Master’s degree courses in translation usually also offer the chance to specialise.

In the UK, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) accredits dozens of courses and its website is a useful resource for anyone looking to gain the necessary training to begin a career in either discipline.

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