Many people get confused as to the difference between an interpreter and a translator. There is a common tendency to think translators interpreter, or that interpreters translate. In fact, the two are very separate jobs requiring different skills. To explain who and/or what an interpreter as opposed to a translator we set out the main differences between interpreting and translation.
Interpreting vs. Translation
On a basic level it would appear that there is little difference between an interpreter and a translator. One translates spoken words and the other written words. However, the differences in how the job is carried out, the pressures, requirements, skills and talents are many.
A translator must be able to write well and be able to express words, phrases, innuendos and other linguistic nuances between languages on paper. A translator has the luxury of time, resources (dictionaries, etc), reference material and the freedom to take a break when needed. Their pressures are relatively limited.
Translators only work into their native languages to assure accuracy in both linguistic and cultural senses. Translators therefore, it could be argued, are not completely bilingual. They may be able to deal effectively with written sources but when it comes to orally translating, it is a different skill.
A translator therefore has a one dimensional aspect to their work. They deal with written words and language that come from paper and return to paper.
An interpreter, on the other hand, has to be able to translate spoken words in two directions. They do this using no resources or reference material bar their knowledge and expertise. An interpreter is required to find linguistic solutions to problems on the spot. The pressure therefore can be quite intense.
In addition to interpreting, the interpreter must also act as a bridge between people, relaying tone, intentions and emotions. Where an interpreter is caught between cross fire they need to demonstrate great professionalism and diplomacy. Their roles are therefore much more complex as they have to deal with both language and people.
What does an Interpreter do?
There are two ways of interpreting known as consecutive and simultaneous.
Simultaneous interpreting involves interpreting in 'real time'. Many would have seen an interpreter sitting in a booth wearing a pair of headphones and speaking into a microphone at a conference or large diplomatic meeting such as the EU or UN. A simultaneous interpreter has the unenviable task of quickly digesting what one person is saying before immediately translating it to others. One of the key skills simultaneous interpreters must demonstrate is decisiveness. They must think quickly and on their feet.
Consecutive interpreting is carried out in face to face meetings, speeches or court cases. A speaker will usually stop at regular junctures, say every few sentences, and have the interpreter translate, before proceeding. A key skill involved in consecutive interpreting is the ability to remember what has been said.
What do you need?
In short, if you need someone to translate something that is written you need the services of a translator. If you need someone to translate the spoken word, you need an interpreter.
Neil Payne is Director of Kwintessential, a London based consultanct providing a range of cross cultural service including interpreters: