Translation and interpreting are among the professional paths that a linguist can take. As defined by the Linguistic Society of America, interpreters provide face-to-face or remote services to facilitate oral communication between two or more people who do not speak a common language, while translators use their skills to translate written content from one language to another.
We have already addressed the similarities between these two professional fields, as well as some differences. Now it’s time to dig deeper: What are the issues that set apart the work of translators and interpreters?
Factors Particular to Each Profession
Although they can often work side by side and complement each other’s skills, both usually specialize in different areas, such as medicine, business, technology, etc., and beyond the fact that interpreters work with spoken language or sign language, while translators work with written text, according to the American Translators Association, the truth is that translators and interpreters have more differences than similarities. What are the most important ones?
• Target languages: Translators generally work in only one direction. Some may understand several different source languages, but generally only have one target language, usually their native language. In contrast, most interpreters work in both directions, meaning that they often work to and from both the target and source language.
• Support: Translators are professional writers. Not only do they understand the source language, but they also write very well in the target language. Meanwhile, interpreters stand out with their oral skills: not only do they understand the source language, but they also communicate verbally very well in the target language. And it is the context that determines their method: simultaneous interpreting (which requires the interpreter to listen and understand in one language while providing interpretation in a second language on the fly), or consecutive interpreting, when the interpreter listens to several complete sentences in one language before the speaker stops to allow the interpreter to provide interpretation in a second language.
In 2020, there were 56,920 interpreters and translators employed in the United States. However, the highest number was reached in 2012, with 63,600 professionals.
• Rates: Some translators price their work according to the number of words in the source language, while others charge according to the number of words in the target language. And some base their rates on hourly estimates. In turn, rates vary by specialty and language. In general, translating a local news article will cost less than a technical document, while an English‑to‑Spanish translation, for example, will cost less than an English‑to‑Vietnamese translation of the same document because of the amount of qualified linguists on each language pair. Interpreters, on the other hand, set their rates according to the length of the job: they may charge by the minute, hour, half-day or full day.
Interpreters and translators filled about 81,400 jobs in 2020 in the United States. 30% percent of them were in professional, scientific and technical services.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
The importance of working with experts
Of course, turnaround times are also very different in the two professions: while interpreters provide their services in real time, whether in person, by telephone or videoconference, translators have longer lead times.
In the same context, the speed and level of accuracy in the two disciplines differ widely. Interpreters do not have time to consult dictionaries and reference documents while doing their work, especially those who perform simultaneous interpreting. For the same reason, the degree of accuracy of an interpretation is likely to be lower than that of a translation.
This poses great challenges and can even result in huge misunderstandings, as has happened many times throughout history, especially with interpreters at summit meetings between political leaders as well as with translators working in crisis contexts.
Knowing the differences between the two linguistic areas allows those who require such services to make better decisions when hiring suitable professionals.