Translation vs. Interpretation

By: Meryl Hanmer

Both translation and interpretation operate with the aim of converting information from one language to another, therefore these are two closely related linguistic disciplines. Many elements link these fields together, but the most significant factor that distinguishes the two is the service medium: interpreters translate the spoken word and translators translate the written word. Both translation and interpretation assume respect for culture, deep understanding of two or more languages and expert subject knowledge. Despite their close relation, few can perform both skills to a professional level. The differences in field training, aptitude, approach and language knowledge are far more substantial than many realise.


The skill profile of a translator

It is often naively assumed by the layman that anyone who is proficient in two languages possess the necessary skills to translate a document. However, those of us who work in the translation industry know that nothing could be further from the truth! In contrast, it is rather the case that few bilinguals can boast the combination of skills needed to succeed in the world of translation.

The key skills of a translator are:

  • A sound understanding of the source language

When given a text, the translator needs to have a comprehensive understanding of the grammatical structure of the language so that they can precisely identify the tense, tone, level of formality, target audience and overall aim of the text.  All this is essential information to acquire prior to beginning the actual work of translation.

  • Cultural sensitivity

When reading a source text and establishing the method of translation, the translator must consider the culture of the country from which the text originated. What is culturally appropriate to say in one country may not be acceptable in another.

  • Efficient research skills

Attention to detail and a dash of perfectionism are often characteristics of a good translator. The ability to render information efficiently from dictionaries/reference materials aids in assuring a high level of translation quality.

  • High written proficiency in the target language

To convey information clearly and accurately into the target language is the overall aim of a translator, therefore, the mark of a good translator is the ability to write grammatically correct using attractive and precise language.


The skill profile of an interpreter

In contrast to the work of a translator, an interpreter must be confident in orally translating in both language directions on the spot without the assistance of dictionaries or other supporting materials. Fundamentally, it is the art of paraphrasing. The interpreter must listen to the speaker of one language, grasp the content and then paraphrase his/her understanding in the second language to the other party. Contrary to the beliefs of many, interpretation is not a word for word translation of what is being said, if this were true the resulting message would make little sense. Grammatical construction changes from language to language and the interpreter must be sensitive to this.

The key skills of an interpreter are:

  • An active listener

It is the job of an interpreter to listen to, process and produce spoken information accurately and clearly. Failure to listen actively to the speaker will result in a poor interpretation or breakdown of communication.

  • Accurate awareness of non-verbal communication

It is a commonly known fact that the majority of what someone communicates is not done so verbally. The interpreter must be knowledgeable of any cultural gestures that are crucial in the expression of a message. Equally so, the tone of speech and any nuances must be picked up on and relayed in a comprehensive manner.

  • Extensive vocabulary range in both languages

Expertise in subject matter is imperative to interpret correctly and therefore a vast and comprehensive vocabulary range is equally important. To communication all idioms, colloquialisms and subject specific language seamlessly and accurately, the interpreter must be quick in their recount of all essential vocabulary.

  • Emotional resilience

As an interpreter, you can be called upon to be involved in high profile or emotionally difficult cases such as murder trials or medical emergencies. To be present in such instances can be emotional challenging, thus the interpreter must show extreme levels of sensitivity, resilience and control in regards to the people that they represent.


Personal preference based on personal experience

Through my experience of studying Modern Languages, Translation and Interpreting for almost four years, I can say without hesitation that translation is my preferred medium of information conveyance between languages. Although I have enjoyed my time studying the art of interpretation and relished the challenge of working in this field abroad, translation is much better suited to my personality traits. The complexity of translation is fascinating to me and I take pleasure in the opportunity to spend time pondering over the ‘correct’ words to use.  I have great appreciation for the subtle art that is translation and am always waiting with eager anticipation for my next assignments, which allow me to practice and hone my skills.


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