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The Real Difference Between Interpreting and Translation

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 11, 2020

Yesterday, the world was alight with praise for Sharon Choi, the interpreter of Oscar winner, Bong Joon Ho. And there is no doubt that she deserved it.

A few journalists however, through habit or lack of knowledge, called her a “translator”, which annoyed a good few interpreters. If your business is to make an impact with a wider audience, it really helps to know which service you need when. Sadly, the typical advice you get doesn’t always help.

Mostly, people tend to say that translators work with written language and interpreters work with spoken language. This is kind of true but discriminates unfairly against sign language interpreting and leaves some important gaps.

The Usual Definition Doesn’t Work

For example, if you are offering a chat system for customer service and you want to be able to deal with live queries from all your customers, no matter which language they speak, you might think you will need translators. Actually, some companies have found that, if short chats need to be turned into another language, interpreters can give better results than translators, since they are used to making decisions at high speed.

Similarly, you might think that creating the script for dubbing a film in another language would be a job for an interpreter, as it involves spoken language. Actually, it’s really a job for specialist translators, since both the original and translated scripts are written texts.

There’s a better way

Here’s a simpler and more accurate way to determine if you need a translator or interpreter:

Translators work on texts;

Interpreters work at events or meetings.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a film script, a contract or a website, texts are the preserve of translators. They tend to do their work after something has been written down and outside of the specific situation the text will be used for.

Interpreters do their work in front of an audience, while the situation is taking place. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Oscar acceptance speech, a negotiation or a meeting with the manager. It’s even interpreting if the interpreter isn’t physically there. If you are delivering a webinar or remote training or having a Zoom call with a supplier or client, if the meeting or event is still going on while the person is working, they are almost certainly an interpreter.

Just ask one question

This means that you just need to ask a single question:

Will the person be doing their work at the same time as I am on this or will their work come after mine?

If you need someone to turn your speech into British Sign Language or Swahili or French while you are speaking, you need interpreters. If it has been neatly typed up and you then need someone to turn that transcript into British Sign Language or Swahili or French, you need a translator.

If you need someone to turn English into French or German or Dutch during a meeting with a client or a conference on your industry, you need an interpreter. If you need someone to turn the English brochures and advertising materials into French or German or Dutch, you need a translator.

Just the beginning

Of course, knowing the difference between interpreting and translation is just the beginning. You still need to know whether to use an agency or hire a consultant and you will still need help to get the right team.

There are lots of useful guides available, like this quick guide. You can also drop me an email for help.

If you’d like to go deeper into the nitty-gritty of the difference between the two, watch out for an upcoming post on my research blog.