Interpreter vs. Translator

Should I Become an Interpreter or a Translator?

So let’s say that you are a person with some language skills and you’re interested in becoming a language professional. If that’s the case, you’ve got some things to think about.

And the most important of those is what exactly do you want to do with those language skills.

Most people when they think of becoming a language professional think of either becoming an interpreter or a translator.

Those are the two most common bilingual language professions out there. (Of course, there are other things you can do with language.)

Quick side note:

You know, contrary to popular belief, interpreters are not translators and translators are not interpreters. They’re not the same thing. They do different jobs that have different skills but sometimes those terms are used interchangeably.

All right, enough about that. So let’s say that you speak a language or two. Hopefully, you speak at least one language. But let’s say that you speak two or three or maybe only speak one and you’re looking to learn another one and you want to become a translator or interpreter.

However, you’re trying to decide which one you want to be or if you should be both of them.

Let me address first the issue of being both at translator and an interpreter. I will just say this. I don’t know of anyone that is both a translator and interpreter professionally. Certainly, there might be people that do both, but for the most part, professional translators translate and professional interpreters interpret and usually they don’t mix the two modalities.

So before you decide that you want to be both a translator and interpreter, I would suggest that you start with one. Decide whether you would like to be an interpreter or translator first, and then become a professional in that mode. And then if you still want to later on, you can then pursue professionalization in the other one.

So, back to the question.

How do you decide? How do you pick one over the other?

Well, it’s important to know the difference between the two of them, right?

Difference Between Interpreters & Translators: #1

In case you’re unaware or not really sure, interpreters usually work by the spoken word. Translators, on the other hand, usually work by the written word.

So an interpreter will take what somebody says and convert that to the language of the intended recipient. There are different types of interpreting; different situations in which you can interpret but in general, what they all have in common is the idea that somebody is speaking and the interpreter is interpreting what is said into a different language that is intended to be heard by a specific person or group of people.

A translator, as I mentioned, works by the written word for the most part. Somebody has a written document or written text which needs to be converted to a different language. The job of the translator then, is to take that written text and convert it to the language that can be understood by whoever it’s intended for it.

Let’s look at a couple of other differences between translating and interpreting that can help you decide a which one you’d rather do for living professionally.

Difference Between Interpreters & Translators: #2

Freelance translators tend to work alone.

Now, sure, a translator might have a network of people that she works with, or she might have a partner she built a translation business with but in general, freelance translators work on their own.

A client gives them the job through some digital medium, like through Dropbox or Google Docs, or over email. The translator receives the assignment, works on the assignment by himself, returns the translation back to the client, and then the client pays the translator.

That’s the typical life cycle of a translator and client. It’s mostly time spent alone, working by yourself in an office or coffee shop or wherever you like.

Interpreters, on the other hand, tend to work more with other people directly. Simultaneous interpreters sometimes work side-by-side along with their clients. Conference interpreters (depending on the conference forum of course) work in teams of two or three interpreters.

While it’s not always the case that interpreters work with others, it’s more so the case with interpreters than it is with translators.

Difference Between Interpreters & Translators: #3

Another difference between translators and interpreters that can help you decide which one you’d rather be is that translators can usually work from anywhere that there’s an internet connection. Often, translators don’t have to be tied down to a specific location.

As long as the translator has the information from the client that needs to be translated, she can translate wherever she has her computer and wherever she has an internet connection to be able to look things up, submit jobs to the client, and receive emails.

Interpreters on the other hand usually have to work from the location of the job for which they are interpreting.

Let’s take a conference interpreter, for example.

If an interpreter is working at a conference (like at the UN) and has to interpret what the speakers are saying, or what the panels or panelists saying, for example, the interpreter has to show up at the conference and be there the whole time while the conference is taking place.

If an interpreting is doing simultaneous interpreting for a client during a meeting, then the interpreter usually has to be at the meeting to provide the interpretation.

There are certainly instances when that’s not the case. For example, sometimes we talk about telephone interpreting, which is interpretation that’s obviously done over the telephone.

Places like hospitals might use this type of service when a patient comes in that speaks a different language than the hospital staff. In that instance, interpreter doesn’t need to be on site for that to take place because it can be done over the phone. But in general, interpreters are usually required to be at the location where the interpreter interpretation job is taking place.

Difference Between Interpreters & Translators: #4

Another difference between translators and interpreters has to do with the pace of the work.

Translators usually have time to check resources and make sure that what they are translating is correct.

Interpreting can be much more stressful and much more on demand in that interpreters usually don’t have a second chance to go over what they’ve already interpreted.

A translator can translate something and then let it sit for a couple days before sending it off to the client. As a translator, you can look over the translation again, double check any errors, fixing anything that’s wrong.

Interpreters don’t have that luxury. When they show up to do a job, they have to get it right the first time because there are no second chances. So there’s much more stress on the interpreter to get things right the first time.

My translation instructor in college would often say that interpreters needed to have a much more encyclopedic knowledge of their subject matter.

They needed to be able to understand the topic that was being discussed, be able to talk about it, and then understand it in the source language. Then they needed to talk about it in the target language without having to think twice about it or ask themselves:

“Is this the right word? Is that the right word? Uh-oh, I don’t remember. Now I need to look it up.”

Interpreters don’t have that luxury.

Difference Between Interpreters & Translators: #5

Another difference between interpreters and translators is that interpreters have to be able to multitask much better than translators do.

It doesn’t matter whether you think there’s such as thing as multitasking or not multitasking as an interpreter, you have to be able to listen to what the speaker is saying, then you have to be able to process that.

You have to be able to convert that to thoughts and ideas in the target language, all while you’re continuing to listen to the source language speaker.

You can’t do one and then stop and then do the other one, and then go back. While you’re speaking, the speaker is continuing to speak. And so you have to continue to listen and  interpret at the same time. Whether you think that’s multitasking or not, it doesn’t matter. But that’s the reality of the situation, you’re listening, you’re speaking at the same time.

As a translator, you don’t have to do that.

Obviously, you look at what’s on the page, you look what the text is, you check it out, you translate it. Once you’re done translating, you move on to the next chunk, translate that. When you’re done, you move on to the next chunk.

You don’t have to be continually processing that document in your brain while you are translating. You can chunk those into pieces and do them separately.

So there you have it. A few differences between translating and interpreting that should help you decide between the two.

What it comes down to is what your preferences are.

Some people prefer speaking, some people prefer writing and some people find they’re better at one over the other.

One thing to do that might help you is to look for volunteer opportunities to translate and interpret and see which one you like doing more.

It’s a great “no commitment” way to figure out which one you’re better at or which one you’d rather pursue professionally.


P.S. If you’re interested in other types of language careers that require bilingual language skills, be sure to read my book.

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