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Difference between translation and interpreting

When it comes to language services, many individuals may think they require the expertise of a translator, when what they really need is an interpreter. This is simply because they do not understand how the two professions differ from each other, a mistake that is all too common in today’s business world.

What is the difference?

The fundamental difference is that a translator works with the written word, while an interpreter works with spoken ones. You do not use a translator if what you require is somebody to ‘translate’ words as they are being said, in a meeting or a court case, for example. That is the job of an interpreter.

1) The work itself

In short, translators take the written word in one language – be it in the form of an email, a contract, a document, a web page, a novel or an academic paper, for example – and translate it into another, written down. For this reason, it is often a solitary profession, as a translator will typically work alone on a project, the time scale for which is dictated by the length of the source document.

Meanwhile, an interpreter will work with other people, either directly or virtually, be it over the phone or via an internet connection. Accordingly, advances in global connectivity have truly transformed this industry, as interpreters are able to serve clients in real time who are on the other side of the world, with just the click of a button.

2) The method

Following on from the above, one of the other crucial differences between the work of a translator and that of an interpreter is how the task is approached. A translation exercise can last a matter of days or weeks – months even, if the source document is particularly long. Meanwhile, interpreting is an exercise carried out in real time. It depends on the length of the meeting, the conference or the business trip, for example.

As a result, the way that translation or interpreting tasks are approached, priced and planned are entirely different from each other. A translation exercise is, in many respects, more easily quantifiable and predictable than an interpreting task. With a fixed written document, the entire job at hand is laid out on paper in front of the translator. However, with interpreting, there is more of an element of the unknown about it.

This is why to say that interpreters need to be able to think on their feet is an enormous understatement. While a translator may diligently work their way through a document from the comfort and in the silence of their own home, an interpreter will get thrown into real-time situations – conferences, summits, court cases and interviews, for example – and be required to produce the goods at the drop of a hat.

A translator can look ahead in a document to what is coming up. They can read the entire document before tackling it. Meanwhile, an interpreter typically has no idea what is about to come out of somebody’s mouth, meaning there is no time to plan ahead or consult colleagues, dictionaries or grammar books.

Why can’t language professionals always do both?

Another common mistake made when it comes to distinguishing the difference between translators and interpreters is that people may not realise that each profession boasts its own unique skills. That is, the competences are not interchangeable. A good translator will not, by definition, have the ability to be a good interpreter, and vice versa.

Would you say that an author should be able to do the job of a keynote speaker? Would you say that a charismatic orator should know the structure of a power of attorney document? Of course not. The two are fundamentally different roles in different contexts.

Are they similar in any way?

Of course, one of the few similarities between the two, which is what brings about the confusion between the roles, is that both positions require language experts who are fluent in two or more languages.

However, it is important to remember that both professions are far from one dimensional. There are different forms of both translation and interpreting. For example, translation can be done by a human, a machine or it can be computer-aided, which is an amalgamation of the two. Meanwhile, you can have whispering, consecutive, simultaneous, chat, phone or video interpreting – all of which boast their own unique qualities.

Finally, there is a certain degree of the impossible about both of these tasks, most notably when it comes to translation. Before asking how anyone can claim to be able to offer it as a service, bear with us.

The very notion of reproducing words and ideas that were conceived in one language, in a different one will inevitably bring about change. This is because words, sounds and subtleties all exist within a cultural context that is fundamentally different as you move from source to target language.

While transposing comprehension via the means of interpreting may experience this to a degree, the impossibility of the task at hand is most notable with translation.

For example, take trying to translate a work of literary fiction, for which the author will have pored over the way words sound together for a great deal of time. When translating this text, how can a professional translator know what the original author would have done, which words they would have chosen and, in the case of many languages, in which order to put the words? Where there is a degree of subjectivity on the part of anyone else besides the original writer, the task becomes less of an exact science, which is what makes working with languages so fascinating.

Consequently, it is this fluidity that makes it all the more important to employ the use of impeccable translation and interpreting professionals, who appreciate, embrace and respect language, in all its complexity.

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