A professional linguist might translate, interpret, or both — but just what is the difference between translation and interpreting?
Both translating and interpreting aim to communicate across languages, but being proficient at one doesn’t necessarily mean you’re proficient at the other.
Translate the Written Word
Translation essentially consists of taking a text in one language and rendering it into another language. Did you catch that word “text”? The key characteristic of translation is the fact that it works in the medium of the written word.
A literary translation might consist of the translation of a novel from German to French, for example, while a technical translation could be the translation of a cellphone owner’s manual from Japanese to English.
Interpreting, like translation, takes one language and renders it into another. The very important difference is the medium: while you translate a written text, you interpret orally.
For example, a medical interpreter at a hospital could interpret between a Spanish-speaking patient and an English-speaking doctor.
The interpreter acts as a facilitator in this oral communication, relaying the patient’s Spanish to the doctor in English — and vice versa.
Translators and Interpreters: Distinct Skills
It’s quite rare for a linguist to work equally well as both a translator and an interpreter.
A professional translator, for instance, will not necessarily have the interpersonal skills and quick tongue needed to be a fast, excellent interpreter, and a skilled interpreter will by no means have the attention to linguistic style needed to render a compelling literary translation.
Because the jobs of translators and interpreters are so different, it’s important to distinguish between these two labels. However, the one label translators and interpreters share is “linguist.”
This term applies to those accomplished in the use of language, so if you’re not sure what to call a room full of interpreters and translators, you can safely refer to all of them as linguists.
Common Characteristics Needed to Translate or Interpret
Translating and interpreting are very different jobs requiring different skill sets, but there are a couple essential characteristics that both good translators and good interpreters share:
Although translators and interpreters may differ in the media they work in, these two characteristics are always necessary for anyone who wants to translate or interpret professionally.