In the globalised world we live in, businesses have expanded their reach and entered the international market. This requires them to communicate in their target audience’s own language as naturally as any local business would do. This is where translators and interpreters come into play, and while these two professions have some similarities, there are also important differences between them. In order to find the right professionals to meet their needs and help them achieve their goals, businesses need to know the specificities of each of these disciplines, as translators and interpreters are used in different situations.



The main difference is the medium in which a message is delivered. In short, translators write and interpreters speak. For example, if you have to give an oral presentation in front of an audience whose language you do not speak, you need an interpreter. If you need help with a written manual for a new product, you should contact a professional translator. Even though the terms “interpreter” and “translator” are often (and mistakenly) used interchangeably and these two disciplines are closely related, they require different skills and training. 



While both professions require linguistic and cultural skills and knowledge of the subject matter, and both convey a message from one language to another, they work with a different set of skills. On the one hand, translators need excellent writing skills, and they have to pay attention to spelling and punctuation; they also need excellent reading skills in order to fully understand the source text. 

On the other hand, interpreters need excellent oral skills, including modulating their voice and maintaining verbal cues such as the speaker’s tone and inflections. They also need great listening skills, public-speaking skills, note-taking skills, and a strong memory in order to retain the original message and then deliver it in the target language. Depending on the type of interpretation, they might also have to consider aspects such as body language.



Another important difference is time. While interpreters must communicate a message without altering the meaning in real time and in a live setting, translators usually work over a longer period of time and can consult dictionaries, glossaries, and reference material in order to deliver high-quality work. Translators have time to analyse the text more deeply, conduct research, review, edit, and format the target text for accuracy. Translation has to be more thorough and precise, while interpretation is more about understanding the general meaning and then paraphrasing, and a somewhat lower level of accuracy is acceptable as long as the message and tone remain the same. 


Translation and interpreting direction

Translators usually work only into their mother tongue and are not required to be completely fluent in the source language, but interpreters must be fluent in both source and target language, as they usually work in both directions on the spot, i.e. from and into their mother tongue. For example, at a doctor’s office, they might interpret back and forth between the doctor and the patient.



Finally, the tools used are also different. Interpreters work with headphones and microphones in a booth or use notepads and pens for taking notes. Translators can use technology such as translation memories (TMs) and computer-aided translation tools (CAT tools) to make their job easier.

Although these two disciplines may easily be confused, you can now see the difference between them and can hopefully choose the right professional to meet your language needs and achieve your goals. Remember that good communication is crucial for your company’s success. Should you need to translate technical documentation into Spanish, for instance, please do not hesitate to contact me to discuss your specific needs.


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