Translators and interpreters are the invisible figures behind trade politics and diplomacy, keeping the wheels of communication turning. But what’s the difference between a translator and an interpreter? Are they interchangeable? Or are they different professions with their own unique skills? I’ll try to shed some light on these unseen individuals, a look at what translators do and what interpreters do so that if you ever need one, you’ll know the difference.
I’m a translator (mainly), I translate between many different languages. But what is it that translators actually do? Their work involves written text, they transfer meaning from one language to another and they do it in writing. As Edith Grossman, a famous translator, said: ‘serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves as writers’. As a translator, I agree with her.
One special thing about translators is that they usually work from a foreign language into their native language. And that’s because most people find it easier to express themselves in writing in their native language. In fact, translators need a strong sense of writing style. When translating, they’re weighing up the alternatives and carefully selecting the right phrase. They’re very attentive readers of the original text, intensely analyzing the ideas and researching the concepts involved. They need a deep understanding of both of the languages and cultures that they work with, and they need to be expert editors and proofreaders. They do all of this on their laptop or PC, so they have to have strong computer skills, too.
There are different types of translators, for example literary, commercial, medical or legal and translators who work in government, diplomacy or security services. As for me, I’m a literary translator, I translate novels, short stories, and blog posts, among many others.
And then there’s machine translation like Google Translate, which can be very useful at times but isn’t really translation at all. That’s because machine translation swaps words from one language to another without checking the meaning, and real translation is always about meaning.
So if that’s what translators do, what do interpreters do? They also transfer meaning, but they do it from one spoken or signed language to another. And they do it there and then, in real-time, thinking on their feet. They might interpret after the speaker, this is called consecutive interpreting, or they can listen to the speaker and interpret at the same time, which is called simultaneous interpreting. All of this is extremely tiring, so interpreters at the UN, for example, work in pairs and switch every half an hour or so, just so that their heads don’t explode. I am also a continuous interpreter, focusing mainly on accompaniment interpreting.
Interpreters need a very specific set of skills: they need to be clear in their speech or sign language and they need to be able to work in both directions actively, producing both languages. They need to think on their feet, they don’t have time to search for the perfect phrase, they have to get the message across and keep going. So they also need to be very good listeners with an excellent memory.
Interpreters work in a variety of different areas, some work in international conferences, and others specialize in court interpreting or medical interpreting. There are interpreters working with the military, who put their lives at risk every day. There are also community interpreters who work with the various migrant and refugee communities. Interpreters can also work in different ways, so you get the best results when they’re on-site, but they can work by telephone or by video. And, while some software companies are trying to develop automated speech to speech interpreting, it’s a very complex process and so far the results have been pretty poor. Not making it the ideal alternative to a real interpreter.
So to review, translators and interpreters both help people to communicate across language barriers, but translators are the writers, the analysts, the researchers; they transfer meaning in written form from one language to another with careful attention to detail. Interpreters are the speakers or signers, the listeners, and the quick thinkers; they transfer meaning in speech or signs as it happens, in real-time; they’re different roles with very different skills.
So if you ever need someone to help you communicate in another language, I hope that now you’ll know the difference between translators interpreters, so you can choose the right professional, with the right skills, to get you the results that you need.