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Translation and interpreting are two little-known and often confused professions. It is often the case that a customer is looking for an interpreter when in reality he needs a translator and vice versa. Although these two activities are closely linked, as they are part of the same field, they are nevertheless two very distinct tasks requiring very different skills and qualities. In principle, a translator is not an interpreter and an interpreter is not a translator. Very few people are capable of providing quality services in both translation and interpretation.

What is meant by translation and interpretation?

Both mean understanding a message in one language and rendering it in another language, not just in the literal sense, but taking into account other factors, such as the culture or the target audience. The main difference between translation and interpretating is that translation is written and interpreting is oral. A translator works from a written document that can take various forms, such as an instruction manual, a contract, a press article, a book, a letter, etc. Each translator normally specialises in one or more fields. A distinction is made, for example, between literary, technical or legal translators.

An interpreter’s job, on the other hand, consists of translating a message or a speech given by a person into the target language, taking into account the tone and gestures. Interpreters can work in different contexts, hence the existence of several types of interpretation:

Consecutive interpreting: the interpreter listens to the entire speech, taking notes if necessary, and then renders the message.

Simultaneous interpreting: the interpreter is installed in a booth, equipped with a microphone and headphones, and reproduces the speech as the person speaks.

Whispering: the interpreter follows a speech and delivers it in the target language by whispering it in someone’s ear.

Liaison interpreting: the interpreter listens to a speech and restores the message, but the speakers stop after one or more sentences to let the interpreter speak. This is often the case during business meetings for example.

Qualities and skills required

These two professions, although closely related, require very different skills. Translators and interpreters must master their mother tongue as well as one or more foreign languages. Translators must be very comfortable in writing: they must be familiar with the rules of grammar, syntax and typography, be good writers and sometimes creative. Interpreters, on the other hand, must be able to express themselves correctly orally in the source and target languages and be able to grasp the speaker’s intention beyond mere words. Language knowledge is only a small part of the necessary skills. Translators and interpreters must also have a good general culture and a solid knowledge of the cultures of the foreign languages they master. Translators must also be knowledgeable in the field they are translating, able to carry out thorough research, meticulous and accurate. Interpreters must have a good memory, good reflexes and have stamina, as interpreting is a very stressful activity.

We hope we have helped you to distinguish between translation and interpreting.