What’s the Difference Between Translation and Interpretation?

Generally, most people don’t know the difference between “translation” and “interpreting.” To them the words are interchangeable and mean the same thing: converting words from one language to another. But to those within the language servicestranslation-interpretation image industry, there is an important distinction between the two terms, and if you’re thinking about communicating your message into foreign languages, you should know the difference too.
Here’s a quick review of how interpreting differs from translation and some of the terminology you’ll hear associated with each function.

  • A translator takes written text in one language and translates it into written text in another language. An interpreter is a person who listens to a spoken message in one language and interprets it into a spoken message in another language.
  • The term “bilingual” refers to someone who can communicate in at least two languages. However, many people mistakenly believe that any bilingual person can both interpret and translate. In fact, different skills and training are required for each profession. Most bilingual people do not have the same vocabulary or same level of proficiency in both languages. If you want good quality translation or interpretation, make sure you use a professional linguist who has the complete skill set.
  • Language service professionals usually specialize in certain fields. Examples include court interpreters, conference interpreters (like those at the United Nations), commercial interpreters and translators (who work with businesses), and community interpreters and translators (who work with educational institutions, government agencies, and health or social services organizations).
  • All interpretation work is not the same. The three main types, each with its own unique skill sets, are:
  1. Consecutive Interpreting – Typically used during conversations between two people or a small group, the speaker pauses periodically to allow the  interpreter to interpret the message into another language.
  2. Simultaneous Interpreting – This allows direct, unimpeded communication between speakers of different languages via simultaneous transmission through headphones at conferences and conventions. In these situations, the speaker continues to talk uninterrupted while the interpreter interprets at the same time. This approach is commonly used during large conferences or conventions using interpreting equipment like headphones, receivers, microphones, relay equipment, etc., but it also can be employed during court proceedings where an interpreter relays the courtroom dialogue to the defendant.
  3. Sight Interpreting – This requires an interpreter to read a printed document out loud and interpret the written words, instead of spoken words, from one language into another language. Since this is a combination of text and speech, it can also be referred to as “sight translation.”
  • While most people understand that translating written documents typically occurs off-site, they may not be aware the same applies to interpreting services. Sure, interpreters most often work on location, in face-to-face settings, but they also can be there for you by video, called Video Remote Interpretation (or VRI for short), or over the telephone via conference calls (often referred to as Over Phone Interpreting, or OPI). This allows interpreters to be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Regardless of how they’ll be used, look for professional interpreters whose training and qualifications will enable them to handle the nuances of their role, deal with any legal or ethical considerations that arise, and, preferably, offer subject matter expertise.

As you think about your multilingual needs, keep in mind the difference between translation and interpretation. It will help you communicate better with your language service provider and achieve the results you want.
Whether it’s translation or interpreting help you’re after (and now you know the difference!), give us a call. We’d be happy to assist.
For more than 30 years, ASIST Translation Services, Inc. has worked with business, government, educational and non-profit clients around the world. We improve foreign language communications through a full menu of translation and interpreting services, including content localization, studio voice recording & audio-visual production, transcreation, proofreading, website content, page layout & design, cultural training, and other specialized language support. To learn more about how we can assist you, visit our LinkedInTwitter or Facebook pages or our Website!