Image by jeanbaptisteparis

Many people are confused with the difference between translation and interpreting – so what are they? They both deal with communications in different languages, and changing one language to another, but essentially the main difference is regarding the method of communication, whether it is written or spoken.

It is a commonly held belief that a translator can act as an interpreter, and vice versa; the two jobs are not, however, interchangeable.

In saying that, the major differences between translation and interpreting are:

1. Time to Perform

When documents are translated, the translator has time to read, re-read if necessary, and change the language. They can then read the finished document, comparing it with the original version. A translator can use a variety of resources to assist them, such as dictionaries, spell-checkers, and thesauruses.

Interpreting is generally instantaneous. An interpreter must change the language very quickly, without using different resources to help. It is also often the case that the words they hear are fairly fast moving, with little time to pause and plan.

Fun Fact #1

The world’s most translated document is the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has been translated into 300 different languages!

2. Accuracy

Connected with the time and tools available, it is expected that translated materials have a higher level of accuracy than interpreted speech.

3. Fluency

Whilst both translators and interpreters are bilingual (or, in some cases, multilingual) professionals, the language is used in a very different way.

Typically, translators change a foreign language into their own native language, one that comes naturally to them and is easy to create a sensible and accurate written account.

An interpreter must switch between two languages on the spot, often acting as an intermediary between people. Interpreters must be highly fluent in each language.

Image by Antonio Litterio

Image by Antonio Litterio

Fun Fact #2

It is very rare for one person to work as both a translator and an interpreter. There is no name for a person who performs both functions; they should be referred to by both job titles.

4. Number of People

Whilst both translators and interpreters usually do their work alone, it is possible for a team of translators to work on the same document. It is also common for a translated piece to be proofread by another professional before being finalized. However, an interpreter must rely solely on themselves, although it is usual in long dialogues for interpreters to work for a short time and then switch due to the demanding and intense nature of the work.

Fun Fact #3

It is difficult to know the exact number of languages that exist in the world. According to Ethnologue, there are around 6,900 languages in the world! Without translators and interpreters it would be impossible for users of these different languages to communicate effectively. Some languages have no written form, leading to a reliance solely on interpreters.

5. Types of Languages

Interpreters deal solely with living languages – those languages that are spoken by groups of people in the world today. There are also interpreters that communicate in signed languages, and they may be required to use a combination of speech and sign.

Translators, however, may work with living, dead, and extinct languages. They are never required to work with sign language. Extinct languages are those that are not used in oral communications by anyone in today’s world. Examples include Gothic, Lycian, and Ancient Macedonian. There are some languages that are only used in the modern world for ceremonial events and that are not spoken by people in their everyday communications. These are known as dead languages and include Pali, Latin, Coptic and Sanskrit. Statistically, one language dies every two weeks!