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The words “translating and interpreting” are so often seen together that most people assume that they mean the same thing. And to be fair, they are very similar. Translating and interpreting both refer to important linguistic services that help bolster communications between those who speak different languages. They also both require the expertise of linguists who are skilled in navigating cultural differences, understanding language connotations, and making decisions. However, there are key differences between the two fields. 

Translator points to different languages



Translation deals with written content. Translators are able to take their time determining the best translation possible and do lots of research to find answers. They often use computer-assisted tools to speed up the work and find unknown vocabulary. Translators are in charge of conveying the contents of pamphlets, documents, books, and other written media from one language to another. 


Interpretation deals with spoken language. An interpreter encounters more immediate problems than a translator. While a translator has time to sit and research vocabulary or cultural context, an interpreter conveys spoken words from one language to another almost instantly. Interpretation occurs in real-time. Trained interpreters are skilled in remembering what speakers say and paraphrasing that content. They find solutions or workarounds as quickly as possible if they encounter unfamiliar terminology. These linguists are cool under pressure, calmly acting as the voice of their clients during live conferences, appointments, and international events. 

Facets of Interpretation

There are multiple types of interpretation within the interpreting industry. Consecutive interpreting means that the interpreter waits for a break in the speaker’s speech in order to interpret what has been said up to that point. They use special note-taking symbols and abbreviations to remember as much as possible. Consecutive interpreting creates a regulated back-and-forth between clients and interpreters. Because of this, it is often used for legal, business, or medical meetings. 

Simultaneous interpreting is another popular form of interpretation. As the name suggests, during this technique, an interpreter does not wait for a break to begin interpreting. Instead, they speak quietly as the original speaker does, usually with a delay of a few seconds. These interpreters have mastered the ability to listen and speak at the same time. In cases with larger audiences, the interpreter speaks into a small microphone. Those listening to the interpretation can wear headphones to hear the interpreter without being distracted from the visual presentation. In other cases, the interpreter will simply whisper as the conversation occurs. 

Unfortunately, the media contributes to the terminology mixup. C-3PO, the gold-plated robot from the popular Star Wars franchise, is consistently referred to as a translator even though he usually deals with spoken language, and therefore acts more as an interpreter. Modern news media also refer to most interpreters as translators, escalating the confusion. 

In the grand scheme of things, does this distinction really matter? Not really. Both are language-related services that convey text and meaning from one language to another. Referring to an interpreter as a translator is by no means offensive. However, the difference is distinct enough that some linguists may politely correct you in certain situations. 

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