In my view, translators and interpreters are a bit like jigsaw pieces- they are similar and they fit together to form part of the same picture. However, they have some important differences. Many people who are not involved in the languages field do not realise that the two terms have different meanings and therefore use them interchangeably.
Although translation and interpreting are closely related disciplines which both allow communication across languages, they are separate professions. It is uncommon to find professional linguists who can translate and interpret equally as well. This is because the two disciplines require different skills and training.
So, what actually are the differences between translating and interpreting?
The main difference between translators and interpreters is the medium in which they carry out the task. Translators deal with written material, creating an equivalent text in the target language. On the other hand, interpreters deal with spoken material, providing an equivalent message orally in the target language.
So, for example, translators might work on manuals, literature, websites, legal documents, or newspapers. Whereas, interpreters often work in meetings and conferences.
Another important difference between the two disciplines is the way in which the linguists deliver the work. Interpreters mostly work in person and in real-time. On the other hand, translators mainly work remotely and many never meet their clients. Translators also have to work to a deadline, which may be hours, days, weeks, or even months.
There is also a key difference in style between translation and interpretation. Since translators have the whole text available to them as soon as they begin a task, they can read it and ensure they understand every detail of it before translating it. Also, they can consult dictionaries and other resources, and even go back to correct or improve phrases. As a result, translators are able to ensure that the final, polished version is accurate and faithful to the style of the original.
In comparison, while they may be given an idea of the general topic, interpreters usually do not know what the speaker is going to say beforehand. This means that they have to work spontaneously and do not normally have time to look terms up in dictionaries. They also cannot go back to improve something that they have already said. So while interpreters obviously still strive towards precision and good style, their work is not expected to be as polished as a written translation.
Tools and equipment
Another way in which translators and interpreters differ is in the tools and equipment that they use. As discussed above, interpreters generally do not have time to refer to resources. This means that their main tools are their memories and expertise, although they may also use a pen and paper to take notes, or headphones and a microphone.
Translators, on the other hand, are able to do thorough research using dictionaries, glossaries, and other industry-specific resources. Often, translators also use special translation software (CAT tools) which ensure consistency and quality, and improve efficiency.
Another difference between the two disciplines is the direction of translation or interpretation. That is to say, professional translators usually only work in one direction- from their foreign language/s into their native language.
Whereas, interpreters must be able to work in both directions. This means that interpreters usually have to be bilingual, or near-native in both languages.
As a result of the different ways in which translators and interpreters work, the two professions also require somewhat different skills. This means that a good translator does not necessarily make a good interpreter and vice versa.
For example, interpreters require outstanding spoken communication skills in both their source and target languages. They also have to be able to think quickly and work spontaneously, often in front of many people, so interpersonal and public speaking skills are also important. It is also essential for interpreters to have an excellent memory and advanced listening skills in order to process and memorise what the speaker says. In some types of interpretation, the ability to take notes efficiently is also a must.
In comparison, spoken communication skills are not so important for translators. The key skills required to translate well are an excellent understanding of the source language and the ability to write clearly and accurately in the target language. It is also important to pay careful attention to the style and tone of the text. On top of that, translators need to be accomplished researchers in order to find the correct equivalent terms in often very highly specialised contexts. Some translators also have expert knowledge in certain areas, for example, previous training in law, medicine or engineering.
Hopefully, the differences between translators and interpreters are now clearer. While there are some highly-skilled individuals who both translate and interpret, the majority of linguists do one or the other. It is therefore important to distinguish between the two professions, especially if you are looking to contract the services of a translator or interpreter!