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What's the Difference Between Interpretation and Translation?

written by: Maryam DiMauro • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/13/2013

Both interpreters and translators need a firm grasp on the language, but they imply slightly different skills. Interpreters often need to work more quickly and interpret back and forth into two different languages. Translators have more time to work, and therefore make fewer mistakes.

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    Interpretation vs. Translation What’s the difference between interpreting and translating? At first glance, the difference between interpreting and translating seems simple: an interpreter translates orally and a translator translates written text.

    However there are important differences. An interpreter must listen to both languages at a quick, sometimes even feverish pace, and speak in both directions as well. Interpreters have to be quick on their feet and translate a large amount of information over a short period of time.

    Translators, on the other hand, have more time to create the translation over a longer time frame. On the downside, however, they are not allowed the same leeway for mistakes as an interpreter.

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    The Demands of Interpretation and Translation

    Translators have to have a vast vocabulary, good writing skills and a fluency to write in the desired language. This is why there is a tendency to write from the secondary language to the native language, but this is not always so. Symmetrical bilingualism is rare, but that is a subject of another article.

    Interpreters translate in both directions and must be quick to share the information. They have to have a good grasp of cultural disparities from each country and the layered meanings the language provides.

    Interpreters use a variety of styles depending on the needs of their audience: Simultaneous, Whispered and Consecutive. Simultaneous interpretation is when the interpreter relays the language as quickly as he can render it into the language desired. Whispered interpretation is when an interpreter stands besides one person and relays the information. Consecutive interpretation is when an interpreter translates only when the speaker has finished speaking and they have a tendency to do so in short periods of time.

    Both translators and interpreters must understand the subject matter with which they are dealing. They must also understand the layered meanings certain words provide and have an ability to create a universally recognized interpretation. This is why some software programs available on the Internet do not translate properly. The best software provide the basic level of translation but cannot provide the clear translation that only humans can do. Systrans Software, for example, is one of the more competent software translating programs and does not overstate its claims.

    You can find out more about translation and interpreting by visiting the websites of The American Translators Association and the International Association of Conference Interpreters.

    If you need to have something translated, it is also a good idea to learn about how to find out what it will cost, and learn the do's and don't's of negotiating before settling on a final product.