Translators Versus Interpreters, Explained
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Translators Versus Interpreters, Explained

Interpreters and translators are both vital to the provision of language services to the global community. While it’s true that interpretation and translation both involve processing one language into another, in many respects that is where the similarity ends. The skill-sets are almost completely different for each profession, and preparation and execution of the disciplines require entirely separate approaches.

Time versus accuracy

These two factors correlate very closely in both interpreting and translation. Translators have time to get things exactly right. They examine text and meticulously adapt it into the written target language using the translator’s own expertise, reference tools and translation software to ensure a completely accurate rendering of the original.

On the other hand, interpreters must react more quickly. Interpreting can be done either simultaneously or consecutively, in person, via video link or over the phone, but it is much more immediate than translation. Simultaneous interpretation involves listening to and translating the language as it is spoken, without waiting for the speaker to finish. This works best at events where things need to run smoothly, such as conferences and presentations. But, interpreters will always face challenges such as translating idioms and nuanced language on the spot.

Consecutive interpreting involves waiting for the speaker to finish before relaying their words in the target language. Naturally, this slows proceedings down, but it also lends itself to better accuracy—where translation of the exact words is crucial. This can be especially important when the interpreter is assisting legal or medical proceedings, where the impact of their words can have far more significant implications for the audience.

Remote versus personal

As a translator, life can often be spent tapping away on a computer, wrestling with the right linguistic solution to tricky written expressions. Their connection with the audience is remote. They know who they need to engage and how to do so, and are focused on building the perfect written solution to make it happen.

The work of interpreters is less distant. Their time is not spent in front of a computer screen—they deal directly with people. Try to imagine having to deliver medical advice to a foreign patient on a doctor’s behalf, or relaying the verdict in a court case—these are difficult situations. It takes a certain type of person who can conduct themselves well while retaining the absolute accuracy and impartiality required.

Crafted versus conversational 

Translators focus on perfect grammar, a smart turn-of-phrase, a well-localized idiom. They would rather take the time to find the right, culturally appropriate term than risk deviance from the intended meaning. This focus on nuance makes translators better writers, but they also rely on more tools to make sure they’ve got it right (translation memory, style guides and terminology databases, to name a few).

This is not the same for interpreters, who must focus on the immediate verbal translation from one language into another. They have limited tools to rely on save for their own exceptional vocabulary in both languages, combined with superb listening, retention and public speaking skills. They still need to be able to deal with nuance, but in interpretation, the work can also include handling a difference in tone or inflection that changes the meaning of the spoken word.

Such are the demands of simultaneous interpreting that interpreters work in pairs and switch every 20-30 minutes to allow each other to recuperate.

Transactional considerations

Sometimes engaging a translator can be quick: the translation of a text can be arranged with a single email. On the other hand, scheduling interpretation for events can sometimes take weeks or months of planning. In addition to finding the right interpreters and arranging their attendance, you need to consider whether the room is big enough to accommodate simultaneous translation booths, whether they will be working overtime or non-standard hours, plus a whole other range of considerations.

What’s essential to both professions

Subject matter expertise, for one. Whether in person or in text, a knowledgeable audience will quickly spot inaccuracies or inconsistencies when specialization is required. This can reflect just as badly on the original speaker or author as the translator or interpreter, and can have severe consequences if the subject relates to a sensitive issue, such as a court case or medical care. Even in less sensitive cases, reputational damage is not easily repaired, which is why recruiting in either profession should involve a rigorous assessment of subject matter expertise.

Another common skill is an outstanding grasp of metaphors, analogies and idioms in both languages. It’s extremely rare for these linguistic anomalies to translate directly into another language, so a skilled translator or interpreter must possess the ability to find the right parallel in the target language. For interpreters, this can present additional challenges, where regional accents and colloquialisms add an extra layer of complication that must be dealt with without hesitation.

At RWS Moravia, we take both professions seriously. If you need any advice on either translation or interpretation, don’t hesitate to get in touch.