What is the difference between translation and interpreting?

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February 5, 2016 by atacompass

The American Translators Association represents both translators and interpreters; in fact, our tagline is “The voice of interpreters and translators.” Translators and interpreters work with languages, but in very different ways: the key difference is that translators work with written words and interpreters work with spoken words.  Let’s look at some other important differences between translation and interpreting.

Translators write and interpreters talk—now you know more than most people about our industry!  In addition, most translators work in only one “direction”: for example from English into Japanese or from Japanese into English. If you search for a translator in the American Translators Association’s online directory, you’ll see that you can choose the “from” and “into” languages that you need. In the industry, these are often referred to as the source (from) and target (into) languages. So, a client who needs a document translated from French into English and then a response document translated from English into French generally needs two different translators. Most translators work into their native language only since it’s faster and easier to write in one’s native language. Of course there are exceptions: If someone was brought up in, say, a Spanish-speaking household and considers that their native language, but they did their studies in English, they may prefer translating into English. Or they may be equally comfortable translating into either language.

Most interpreters work bi-directionally, meaning that one interpreter often works from English into Spanish and from Spanish into English. For example in court interpreting, nearly every interpreter works alone, interpreting in both “directions” for all of the parties involved. There are also various modes of interpreting—the main ones being consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting and sight translation. If you’ve seen movies such as “The Interpreter,” you’ve seen simultaneous interpreting in action, with the speaker and the interpreter seeming to talk at once, sometimes using microphones and headsets to hear each other. In reality, simultaneous interpreters use a technique called décalage (French for “time delay”), meaning that the interpreter deliberately lags a few words behind the speaker in order to correctly interpret a complete phrase or thought. In consecutive interpreting, one person speaks at a time, and then waits for the interpreter to interpret. This may require extensive note-taking on the part of the interpreter, and of course it also takes at least twice as long as simultaneous interpreting. Finally, sight translation is the oral interpretation of a written text—for example if a judge gives a court interpreter a document in English and asks her to read it to the defendant in Portuguese.

Whether you need a translator, an interpreter or both, ATA is here to help! Visit our online directory  and let us help you find the right person for your language needs!

Corinne McKay, CT, is a French to English translator and ATA board member.

4 thoughts on “What is the difference between translation and interpreting?

  1. Very good article. I will certainly refer my clients to it.

  2. […] back and forth between both the source and target languages. Translators on the other hand, rarely translate both directions: they usually translate from their learned language into their native […]

  3. Another difference, in my opinion, is that translators are more accurate. They attempt to translate the words as well as the general feel of the text and provide the same amount of information. Whereas interpreters, translate in a manner that makes the people in the meeting understand each other, so it’s a much more general translation.

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© American Translators Association and The ATA Compass, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the American Translators Association and The ATA Compass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Reprints may be used with permission from The ATA Compass, published by the American Translators Association (www.atanet.org). Requests for permission to reprint articles should be sent to atacompass@atanet.org.
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