What’s the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

Written by MA Translation Studies student Rebecca Ellerker

The answer to this question is not as complex as it might appear. The terms ‘translator’ and ‘interpreter’ are often used interchangeably by those who are none the wiser and many people are not aware that they are in fact two different professions.

Translators work with written texts and transfer meaning from one language into another. Not only do they require excellent skills in terms of both their source language(s) and their native language (the target language), but translators also need to have a solid understanding of the culture systems in the countries where both are spoken. Virtually all professional translators only translate into their mother tongue, and above all, they need excellent writing skills and an eye for absolute accuracy. A good translator uses all of their knowledge and skills, alongside thorough research and extensive use of reference materials, including monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, in order to produce accurate translations.

Interpreters, on the other hand, work with spoken words, facilitating communication between people across different languages. Like translation, interpreting also requires outstanding language skills, and the similarities between the two do not end there. Interpreters also need an in-depth knowledge of the culture and conventions of both the source and target language countries and, importantly, confidence in their linguistic abilities. However, due to the oral nature of interpreting, interpreters are required to work in both directions between the two languages. They must be able to transfer the meaning of the original message, paraphrasing where necessary, on the spot, and without the use of reference materials.

There is a wide variety of situations, industries and sectors that require the services of translators and interpreters. The different text types that translators work with is equally diverse and as such translators often specialise within a particular subject area or a certain industry. In the case of interpreting, however, there are three main areas: conference, business and public service. Within these sectors the most appropriate type of interpreting also varies and includes: simultaneous interpreting, where the interpreter transfers the spoken message as the speaker is talking (usually via microphones and headphones from an interpreter’s booth); consecutive interpreting, where the interpreter listens to the whole speech, makes notes, and then relays the content to the participants in their own language once the speaker has finished; and liaison interpreting, where the interpreter relays the message several phrases at a time.

The Institute of Translating and Interpreting (ITI) has offered the simplest and clearest answer to the original question: ‘Translators write. Interpreters speak.’ So, if you are a French company wishing to launch a new product in the UK and the sales brochure has been written in French, you need a translator. If you are an English-speaking academic presenting at a conference in Spain, you need the services of an interpreter.