Although used interchangeably, translation and interpretation are two different fields. While translators deal with written text, interpreters have specific skills to translate oral content and, in turn, render it orally.
While these two fields can sometimes be complementary, they have significant differences. What are their features and how to choose between them according to our needs?
Translators and Interpreters: Main Differences
Beyond the format —written vs. oral material—, there are many other factors that differentiate translators and interpreters:
● Deadlines: Since their services are provided in-person, by phone or through video-conference, interpreters work on-the-fly, whether in person or online. Translators, on the other hand, have longer deadlines. This means that translators have more time to use technology and computer assisted translation tools, as well as reference material, that allows them to produce high-quality and accurate translations.
● Speed: Interpreters simply do not have the time to consult grammar manuals, dictionaries or other resources while on the job. And since they work at great speed, they need to have extraordinary listening skills —particularly those doing simultaneous interpretation— because they need to render their interpretation while listening to the speaker. The other variety is consecutive interpretation, where the interpreter waits for the speaker to make a pause in their speech to render the translation. Translators focus only on translating a source document into the target language.
● Accuracy: Since interpretation occurs in real time, it is usually expected to have a lower level of accuracy than translation. While the goal is always to provide the highest precision in context, speed is crucial for interpretation and it poses a great challenge to interpreters. Translators need to be highly skilled in the source and target language, the topic and all aspects and culture of both languages. And since they have more time to deliver their assignments, they can be more accurate. Moreover, text translations —once completed and delivered to the client— can last indefinitely and may be forwarded to others, shared, studied and used by any person having access to that translation. This also means that the translation can be analyzed more closely by multiple readers, which exposes the translator to a high level of scrutiny and often liability, while the performance of an interpreter is usually only assessed by a limited target audience —except for high profile interpretations, such as the Oscars and even then, it is expected that some level of inaccuracy would fall under the radar.
An experienced professional should be able to interpret between 120 and 150 words per minute during improvised speech and between 160 and 190 words for read statements in international presentations.
Source: International Association of Conference Interpreters
Translators and Interpreters: Similarities
Beyond their differences, there are many coincides between these two fields. Besides, both services can be complementary in many cases. Specific fields, such as tourism, education, medicine and science, culture and even business and government affairs, increasingly require both roles to focus on intercultural communication.
We find, then, three main coincidences:
● Specific Skills: On the one hand, listening and speaking at the same time requires complex cognitive abilities that are further complicated by the need for speed and accuracy, and by the fact that one of the two languages is usually not native to the interpreter. On the other hand, we know that translation is not simply replacing words with words in a different language, but a complex task that requires specific training and a broad experience to recreate accurate content that reflects the meaning and context of the original document.
● Extra-linguistic Aspects: Translating and interpreting, metaphors, idioms, analogies, traditional expressions or ways of speaking that are only effective in the source language, or that do not have a ready equivalent in the target language, are only one of the multiple challenges faced by both translators and interpreters. In both cases, the task involves being faithful to the original and rendering the same complete messages via equivalent forms.
● Certifications: Besides being subject to Codes of Ethics, both translators and interpreters may act as legal experts; that is, they may offer services that are accepted and acknowledged by official entities. This also means that their work has legal value. It is particularly useful for companies seeking to move beyond borders and expand to other markets.
Before the pandemic, 78% of simultaneous interpretations were in-person; currently, that rate has fallen to 3%. Source: Slator
These similarities lie mainly in the fact that both translation and interpretation require a professional performance and share many elements. In any case, companies seeking to hire linguistic services need to understand the differences between translators and interpreters.
Thus, choosing one or the other will depend on the specific needs of each organization, the schedule involved, the material being used and the context.