The Difference Between an Interpreter and a Translator

By Stacey
Aug 3, 2016 · 3 min

Many potential clients contact interpreters saying they’re looking for a translator, when in fact they’re actually looking for an interpreter.

The Difference Between an Interpreter and a Translator

Many potential clients contact interpreters saying they’re looking for a professional translation expert when in fact, they’re actually looking for an interpreter. Of course, clients call interpreters when they don’t need an interpreter at all – they’re actually looking for a translator. Most people involved in the study of language already understand the difference between these two fields, but there are many people who use these words interchangeably, which is incorrect. So let’s see what these two areas of linguistics do have in common, and also why they’re so different.

Briefly, though, the easiest way to remember the difference between these two is that an interpreter deals with the spoken message, while a translator deals with the written word.

Similarities between Interpreters and Translators

  • Both interpreters and translators work with a source language (which is the original language from which they’re working) and a target language.
  • Both of these professions only work from other languages into their mother tongue (the exception to this rule is a Liaison Interpreter – see below).
  • They both extract a message from the source language and convey it to their target audience in the target language
  • Both the interpreter and translator are linguists
  • Both require professional qualifications.

what does an interpreter do

Differences between Interpreters and Translators

  • An interpreter works with the spoken word, whereas a translator works with the written word.
  • An interpreter is paid either by the hour or by the day, whereas a translator charges on a per word, per hour, or per page basis.
  • An interpreter may be required to interpret both from and into their mother tongue, such as interpreters doing liaison interpreting for hospitals, police, courts, and so on; while all translators work into their mother tongue.
  • To a certain degree, translators have time on their side, meaning they can use dictionaries and are generally not required to translate on the spot; whereas interpreters must be proficient in delivering the message in unison with the original speech, like a live voice-over (known as Simultaneous Interpreting) or immediately afterward (known as Consecutive Interpreting);
  • The tools a translator users are entirely different to those of an interpreter. Translators use CAT tools (Computer Aided Translation), dictionaries, and computers; whereas an interpreter may use headphones and a microphone in a booth or a notepad and pen for taking notes - but most importantly, they take with them their memory and their vast knowledge of interpretation.

We trust this brief post has made it easy for people to distinguish between an interpreter and a translator. Basically, the main rule of thumb is that an interpreter is used for the spoken word and a translator is used for the written word. We hope this prevents any future confusion about these two very important linguistic fields.

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