Some Differences Between Interpretation and Translation

Earlier this year I wrote about the difference between Translation and Localization. Today I thought I’d continue riding that train of thought and talk about another set of easily confused terms: Translation and Interpretation.

Interpretation vs. Translation FAQIt really boils down to this: If there’s speaking involved, it’s Interpretation. If writing, it’s Translation.

Thank you, and have a nice day.

Just Kidding
There are several noteworthy distinctions, so we’ll start at the beginning…

  1. Spoken versus written
    Interpretation is the transference of meaning between spoken languages, while translation is the transference of meaning between written languages.
  2. Real time versus delayed
    Interpreting occurs in real time. It happens in person, on the phone, or through a television/video service. Because translation involves the written word, it typically takes place long after a text is created, which gives the translator time to access resources (dictionaries, glossaries, subject matter experts, etc.) to produce an accurate and effective end document (or website, help file, etc.).
  3. Level of accuracy
    Interpretation and translation demand different levels of accuracy. Interpreting requires excellent memory skills to ensure a high level of accuracy, which can be challenging to achieve in a live conversation. Conversely, translators have time to evaluate and revise each word and sentence before delivering their product, so they can achieve a greater level of accuracy and greater fidelity to the original.
  4. Direction and fluency
    An interpreter must be fluent enough in both the original language and the target language to be able to interpret in both directions, on the spot. Interpreters are highly qualified people, and the work is quite demanding! In an ideal setting, interpreters work in pairs and switch off every 20 minutes or so to prevent mental fatigue.Typically, professional translators only work in one direction-translating into their native language. As such, translators do not have to be as fluent in the source language as an interpreter must be. The key skills of a translator are to understand the source language and to use their knowledge of the target country’s cultural and language norms to create an effective translated product.
  5. Intangibles
    Both translators and interpreters are faced with the challenge of making metaphors, analogies, and idioms understandable to the audience in the target language. However, interpreters must also capture tone, inflection, voice quality, and the other intangible elements of the spoken word and convey those meaningfully to the audience.

Think of it This Way
An English-Spanish Translator helped your Spanish-speaking customer obtain the necessary information from your website (which was originally written in English), allowing your customer to make a mountain-climbing guide reservation on Mount Everest. The Interpreter who speaks both Nepali and Spanish fluently will help your customer understand the Nepali-speaking mountain-climbing guide when they say, “it’s time to make the summit.”

Despite the differences in the skills of translators and interpreters, both are bilingual professionals who share a passion for conveying meaning to people who would otherwise be unable to understand the information at hand.

Learn More
This was a pretty high-level explanation of the differences between Translation and Interpretation. If you’d like to learn more, please contact me or read the Lionbridge FAQ, “What’s the Difference Between Interpretation and Translation?

(Did anyone else think it was funny that I called this a “high-level explanation” so soon after using a Mount Everest analogy?)

And finally, I’d like to thank Lionbridge Interpretations expert, Dawn Piper, for her valuable input on this post. Thank you, Dawn!

Leave a Reply