Not Quite Two Peas in a Pod: the Differences between Translators and Interpreters

Translators and Interpretors

Interpreters and translators work in closely related linguistic disciplines. To the untrained eye, the difference between an interpreter and a translator is only in the medium: interpreters translate spoken words, while translators interpret written texts. Both translators and interpreters are language craftsmen and there seems to be significant overlap between the two. However, there are significant differences in the training, the skill set, and the requirements for both jobs, and the differences are greater than the similarities.

The Skill Set and the Level of Accuracy Expected

A translator needs to be able to understand the source language along with its cultural context and, using dictionaries, reference materials, and CAT tools, he will render it clearly into the target language. On the other hand, interpreters are asked to translate on the spot, without supplemental reference materials. Simultaneous interpreting in particular, requires excellent listening abilities, as well as public speaking abilities and quick decision making skills as time constraints do not allow for careful linguistic assessments. Consecutive interpreting additionally requires excellent note-taking skills and ability to synthesize information fairly quickly.

The level of expected accuracy of the final product is different. Interpreters are given a margin of artistic license, and the time factor takes preeminence over perfect equivalency. Since translators have the time to evaluate and revise a text before delivery, a significantly higher level of accuracy is expected. Interpreters surely are required to prepare well before an interpreting assignment, which can increase the chances of accuracy of the translated speech.

One Direction or Two Directions

Usually, translators only translate into his or her own native language and oftentimes into their subject matter expertise. An interpreter, on the other hand, is required to translate in both directions on the spot, without any additional material to consult. In simultaneous interpreting, the output is delivered in the target language within 5-10 seconds after the word has been uttered in the source language. Quick grasp and understanding of the meaning of the speech that is being delivered is of key importance for interpreters. Only when the interpreter is able to understand a concept can he quickly render it in the target language.

The Translator’s Work Seeks Perfection

 The work of the translator involves scrupulously analyzing the meaning of the source text, seeking a perfect rending of its precise meaning. Proofreaders, subject matter experts, and quality assurance specialists later review the final output. The translated product should be essentially perfect. Moreover, in the absence of immediate time constraints, the translator is expected to do thorough research and consult specialist databases to deepen his or her understanding of the subject matter, so as to reduce the likelihood of error.

On the other hand, the interpreter takes a bird’s eye view of the original utterance in order to capture its essence. After a fast analysis of it, the spoken translation is delivered in the foreign language, with ample room for errors.

Ultimately, Conveying the Message is Key

Despite the differences between the translator and interpreter’s professions, they both require an understanding of the subject matter and the rending of the message into the target language. They also both require intimate familiarity with both languages as well as both cultures, ability to express culturally embedded concepts, and linguistic nuances. Extensive language training, accumulated experience as well as years spent in the countries of the source and target languages are essential to both professionals.

This article is written by a professional writer, Ilaria Ghelardoni, associated with Ulatus.  

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