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Why Translators and Interpreters Are NOT Interchangeable

Updated: Mar 12

She's look up the definitions of translate and interpret. (Image by Наталия Когут from Pixabay.)

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked to “translate” when someone wants me to interpret between Spanish and English. I’ve even used the word translate that way myself. In everyday language, the words translation and interpretation are used interchangeably. Yet when it comes to professional services, the terms are anything but.


Similarities Between Translators and Interpreters


Translators and interpreters aren’t so much apples and oranges as broccoli and broccolini—similar but not exactly the same. Professionals in both fields:


  • Must have a native or near native fluency in the source language and the target language.

  • Undergo specialized training to perform their roles.

  • Can specialize in a specific field such as medical or legal.

  • Can become certified in their field after meeting certain requirements.


Yes, some language professionals have trained in both fields, but most choose to focus on only one due to the significant differences in day-to-day tasks.


What Is a Translator?


Translators take written words from a source (original) language and adapt them into a target (second) language. This typically involves translating from a language they understand at a near-native level into their native language.


Translation Skills


Translators need deep knowledge not only of the grammar and syntax of at least two languages, but also need strong writing skills. Modern translations are no longer a one-to-one conversion of each word from one language to the other. They involve adapting the message to another culture, which may involve some creativity to get right.


Research Requirements


Some translations require additional research to complete.


For example, a translator may need to review medical journals and articles to ensure a term is used correctly. In English, saying some is HIV negative, is a positive (good) result. The terminology to state someone doesn't have HIV in another language may be different. Therefor, it's essential that the translator uses the right terms in the target language.


Work Environment


While some work in-house for companies or translation agencies, many more are freelancers who work from home (or where ever they want). Once finished, they submit documents electronically for review.


What Is an Interpreter?


Interpreters convert one spoken language into another spoken language. They must quickly switch between two languages they speak at the native or near native level.


Types of Interpreting


There are two methods of interpreting: simultaneous and consecutive. Simultaneous interpretation involves interpreting as the speaker is still speaking, while consecutive interpretation involves waiting for the speaker to finish before interpreting.


Interpreting Skills


Interpreters need exceptional speaking, listening, and interpersonal skills.


They must be able to switch languages quickly, and convey the message in each while minimizing any loss in meaning. They should also know how to read tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language--information that can help them clarify what either party is saying.


They must also be able to remain calm and neutral in stressful situations. A few examples include medical settings and a working with refugees. Someone who is scared or confused may view an interpreter who is a native speaker of their language as as confidant. Yet an interpreter should serve as a go-between, not an advocate.


Research Requirements


Depending on the circumstances, an interpreter may have little to no time to research before a job. Although interpreters should always be briefed on the circumstances beforehand, they will need a deeper knowledge of certain areas such as medical or legal terminology and procedures. Unlike translators, they must be able to act in the moment.


Work Environment


Work environments vary significantly. Some interpreters work remotely over the phone or video. Others work on-site with other interpreters in conference settings. Legal and medical interpreters may need to arrive on-site on short notice.


Why Hire a Translator or an Interpreter?


Now that you know the differences (if you didn’t already), lets take a look at why you may want to hire one or the other.


You may be thinking, I can just get so-and-so to translate that document or interpret during a business meeting. He or she is bilingual. Well, for a simple in-house document or an informal chat with an international client, that might work.


However, if you want to ensure a translation or interpretation is professional, you need to hire a professional. Becoming a translator or an interpreter takes much more than just being bilingual!