Difference between translator and interpreter

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Difference between translator and interpreter
Video game translator and interpreter Bill Trinen

Translating and interpreting are two linguistic disciplines that are closely related. These fields are rarely undertaken by the same individuals. The differences in training, skills, aptitude and even knowledge of the language are so great that only a few people can perform both effectively on a professional level.

It is not uncommon for people to confuse a translator and an interpreter. Many potential clients often contact interpreters saying they need a translation expert when in the real sense, they are in need of an interpreter. And of course, clients tend to call interpreters when they are searching for a translator. Those involved in the study of linguistics and language already know the difference between the two disciplines, but so many people tend to utilize these two words interchangeably, which should not be the case.

On the surface, translation and interpretation only differ in the medium: the translator interprets written text while the interpreter translates orally. Both of these fields presuppose an in-depth knowledge of various languages. So, let’s take the time to differentiate between a translator and an interpreter and determine what aspects tell them apart.

The Skill Profile

Arguably, the difference in skills is greater as compared to their similarities. The primary skills of the translators involve their ability to understand the culture and source of the language where the text originated, then utilizing a library of reference materials and dictionary to render such material into the target language in a clear and accurate manner. In other words, while cultural and linguistic skills are still instrumental, the most significant mark of an excellent translator is their ability to write excellently in the expected language.

Even the bilinguals can hardly express themselves in a particular subject perfectly in both languages, and a good number of excellent translators aren’t fully bilingual to start with. Having knowledge about this limitation, an experienced translator will only translate text into their native language. That is why it is preferable that, in addition to expertise in subject matter, technical translators translate only into their native language.

On the other hand, an interpreter should be able to offer translation in both directions in a given time, without utilizing a dictionary or any other reference materials. These experts must possess extraordinary listening abilities, particularly when it comes to simultaneous interpreting. As professionals, simultaneous interpreters should process and memorize words from the source-language speaker, while simultaneously transforming it into the target language within a period of five to ten seconds. Interpreters must and should have excellent public speaking skills as well as the intellectual capacity to transform colloquialisms, idioms, and other culturally-specific references instantly into analogous statements understood by the target audience.

Interpreter Qualifications

Just like translation, interpreting is the art of paraphrasing. This implies that the interpreter listens to the speaker in a given language, grasps the content of what they are saying, and then paraphrases their understanding of the content using the target language’s tool. Nonetheless, just as it’s impossible to explain a thought to another person if you didn’t fully understand it, you can’t interpret or translate something without mastering the subject being conveyed.

As mentioned, the interpreter should be in a position to translate in both ways on the spot, without utilizing any reference materials or dictionaries. To be effective, an interpreter must decide how best to deliver the meaning as well as the context of the words used. This aspect requires a high degree of expertise in the subject area, a great deal or working experience, and a current knowledge of the different cultures. It cannot be overstated: when looking for an interpreter, their knowledge of the subject area is equally as significant as their experience in interpreting.

Difference between translator and interpreter
New comer translators and interpreters

The main types of interpreting

The two forms of interpreting commonly used by experts include simultaneous or consecutive. Most individuals are aware of the simultaneous conference interpreting where the interpreter in a booth wears a pair of headphones and uses a microphone to convey the interpreted message. Nonetheless, simultaneous interpreting can be used to interpret a speech or even “whisper” into a foreigner’s ear. In this type of interpreting, the expert cannot begin the interpretation until they understand the overall meaning of the sentence and the information conveyed. Depending on the location of the subject and verb within a sentence, the interpreter may fail to utter even a word until they have heard the end of a sentence conveyed in a source language. This clearly shows that the work of interpreting is not as easy as people may imagine since the interpreter has to translate the words into the target language while at the same time listening to and comprehending the following sentence.

In consecutive interpreting, a speaker has to stop after certain time intervals, about one to five minutes. In this case, the process of interpreting takes place at the end of every complete thought, or paragraph and the expert then steps in to convey what was said in a language the target understands best. A vital skill involved during this process is note-taking since only a few interpreters are able to remember an entire paragraph without losing the details.

Distinct skills of Translators and Interpreters

It’s quite a rare situation for a linguist to function equally well as an interpreter and a translator. For instance, a professional translator may not possess the interpersonal skills or fast tongue required to be a quick, excellent interpreter. On the other hand, a skilled interpreter may by no means possess the attentiveness to linguistic style required to provide a compelling translation.

Since the role of the interpreters and translators are quite different, it’s essential to distinguish between these two. Nevertheless, one of the labels that these experts share is “linguist.” This word applies to people who have the expertise in the use of language, so if you are uncertain of what to call a group of translators or interpreters, you can safely call them linguists.

Language interpreters possess the following skills:

  • Intimate familiarity with and knowledge of both cultures
  • Thorough knowledge of the subject that is to be interpreted
  • Extensive vocabulary usage in both languages
  • Excellent note-taking skills for consecutive interpreting
  • Ability to express thoughts in a clear and concise manner in both languages
  • At least two to three years of booth experience in the case of simultaneous interpreting

 Characteristics required to translate or interpret

Interpreting and translating are quite different as these require varying sets of skills, but there is a number of essential features which both the interpreter and translator share:

  • An interest in languages as well as interest in facilitating communication between different languages
  • A complete and an in-depth understanding of native (or near-native) proficiency in different languages

Although the interpreters and translators may differ in how they work, the above characteristics are often necessary for any person who wants to interpret or translate professionally.


Despite the differences in the skills of the interpreter and the translator, it’s imperative that these experts understand deep knowledge of both languages as well as the subject matter of speech or text they are translating. Interpretation and translation are not just about substituting one word for the other. They are about understanding the thought conveyed in one language and explaining it through the use of cultural nuances and resources of another language.


References :

[0] Interpreter And Translator". Lrc.wfu.edu. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 Jan. 2017

[1]Interpreters Vs. Translators: Major Differences". Communication without barriers. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

[2][img] Video game translator and interpreter Bill Trinen : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bill_Trinen_GDC_2007.jpg

[3][img] New comer translators and interpreters : https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=+translator+and+interpreter&title=Special:Search&fulltext=1&searchToken=ca3gnz5jz3ugpt7jz1zgrxeb4#/media/File:Absolute-Interpreting-Translations.JPG


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