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Translator or interpreter: what is the difference?

interprete 1200There is often confusion between the work of translators and interpreters. Since these two professions require similar competencies, few know the differences and how to distinguish them. Nevertheless, translating and interpreting are quite distinct activities. Their requirements and end goals are quite different in practice.

Before presenting the particularities of a translator and interpreter, let's look first at their commonalities and differences.

Both translators and interpreters translate a language from a foreign source to their native language. Both the translator and interpreter must perfectly master at least two languages.

The greatest difference is that a translator works primarily on written translations while an interpreter works with oral translations.

Translator: mastering the written word

A translator’s mission is to produce a written translation from an original document. They work primarily from a foreign language translating to their native language.

Analysis, research, and verification are important to this task. It is long and meticulous work during which the dictionary becomes invaluable.
Verifying the accuracy of the usage of a word is as important as adequately reworking the turns of phrases.

A translator must adhere to the transposition of content and form (the document type). They can work from written texts or from different sources like vocal or audio-visual recordings.

Interpreter: the art of live translations

Contrary to a translator, an interpreter translates the spoken language. An interpreter makes communication possible. They serve as the intermediary between people of different languages and cultures.

The challenge for an interpreter is to be able to reproduce without delay, and without preparation, a speech or conversations. They must be highly reactive in order to almost simultaneously produce oral translations.

There are two types of interpretation:

  • simultaneous interpretation, which is a direct and immediate transposition of a speech,
  • and consecutive interpretation, which allows the interpreter to first assimilate the speech before recounting the translation.

We must also note that there are other forms of specific interpretation like those related to legal or sign language.

Whether the professional is an interpreter or a translator, they are, above all, an expert in languages. They enjoy playing with word meanings as much as they are impassioned by the culture of the languages that they have mastered. Their curiosity and open-mindedness allow them to maintain their level of expertise.


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