What's the difference between translation and interpreting?

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Do translators and interpreters do the same work? Can these terms be used interchangeably? Does it matter?

The terms 'translating' and 'interpreting' may give us the same general idea. These terms appear to be commonly interchanged outside of industry circles. However, these are two distinct types of work that require independent training and specialised skills.


This text-based work involves reading in one language and transferring the content into another language in a written form. Translation takes excellent analytical and writing skills, as well as usage of reference tools including dictionaries and thesauruses.

Translators deal with many kinds of written texts, including the following:

· Books

· Websites

· Subtitles

· Official documentation


Interpreting is spoken and usually live. Two broad types of interpreting include the following:

· Simultaneous interpreting – listening at the same time as producing instantaneous interpretation

· Consecutive interpreting – listening and taking notes until a segment is completed and it is the interpreter's turn

There are also more specific types of interpreting that relate to the format of the presentation, the interpreter's visibility, and the manner of their interaction with the client.

Sign language interpreting falls into the same field. Interpreting is defined by its spontaneous nature. This work is based on prior preparation combined with on-the-spot cognitive techniques to deliver the transfer in the moment of interpreting.

The interpreter prepares with a degree of research before the day. In the moment of transfer, the interpreter uses the cognitive skills of memory techniques to retain what they have heard, and informed anticipation to know where the speaker is going. These skills vary depending on the type of task.

Professionals working in and around the language industry know that translation and interpreting are two distinct categories of work and that they cannot be used as vaguely equivalent terms.

Why does it matter?

You can stay on the good side of any professional by being informed about the basics of their work. Understanding the key aspects of their job can save you from embarrassing mix-ups and wearing them thin with inappropriate job recommendations.

We now know about the vastly different skills and education that translators and interpreters draw on. This brings the logical conclusion that being an expert in one area may not entail being particularly skilled in the other. In fact, as in most industries, professionals are most likely to have a unique specialisation that they have studied in-depth and worked hard to perfect. It is possible, and even likely, that your interpreter never translates and that your translator never interprets. Throughout their careers, they may never even have acquired the necessary skills to approach the other task at all.

There are, of course, many versatile members of the industry who have worked hard to attain excellence in both streams of work, but this should never be assumed. Even in such cases, a full time professional has almost certainly chosen to focus on their preferred mode of work.

By all means, ask a professional translator or interpreter about the scope of their experience and education. Just remember that they are a highly trained individual and a master of their unique craft.

Do you have a question about linguistics or the language industry? Ask Shana to learn more.

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