Translators vs. Interpreters: What’s the Difference?

Interpreters… translators… is there even a difference between the two of them? To be honest, when asked on the street if there is a difference between an interpreter and a translator, most people would say that there isn’t. The general public has never learned to differentiate between the two. And that has caused a lot of angst among those who work in the profession.

It seemed that when I was at school studying to be a translator, many of the students would get upset if the word interpreter was used when the correct word should have been translator, and vice versa. We were all young ideological translators-in-training and it seemed we were on our own personal mission to correct everyone who ever dared to misuse the two terms. This was enforced to us by a translation professor who simply abhorred this misuse and drilled its evilness into us day after day.

Even after I graduated from college and began a full-time translation career, I would always, always, always correct anyone who interchanged the words, and that said one when he or she really meant the other. For some reason I felt like it was my duty to point out to everyone that translators are not interpreters, nor are interpreters translators.

But alas, times change. And luckily, people do, too, including me.

After having been a translator for over ten years now, I’ve realized that this is a fight I’m willing to give up. The problem is that incorrect usage is just too widespread. Everyone from friends to journalists are at fault, and there is no way to stem the tide.

Which is why I’ve stopped my pursuit.

If you open up the news, you’re bound to find loads and loads of instances of misuse:

A sports article on Yahoo
“He storms out of the dugout, and behind him is a translator. Valentine’s Japanese is good but not good enough to argue with the umpires by himself.”An article from the

Montreal Gazette
“If your parents or grandparents speak a language other than English or French, please feel free to speak on their behalf or as their translator.”

A New York Times article
“I turned around in the seat to watch through the rear window as some Iraqi men ran toward the explosion site, but my translator cautioned me not to move around so much: it might attract attention.”

I could go on and on with countless examples of misuse, but hopefully you get the point. It happens all over the place, both in print, online, and television media. At first it surprised me that even publications like the New York Times would make this mistake.

What’s interesting, though, is that in terms of incorrect usage, while people tend to interchange the word translator for interpreter, the opposite case hardly ever appears.

There are very few instances when someone is talking about a translator but uses the word interpreter, and the use overuse and underuse of these two words perpetuates their being used even more (and less).

Why is that the case?

I think the main reason is because the word interpreter isn’t as common as its counterpart, translator.

Take a simple Google search, for example.

Searching on the word translator brings back 38.4 million results.

Searching on the word interpreter, however, only brings back about half the results, a mere 15.8 million.

Another reason could be the very definitions of the two words. The New Oxford American Dictionary, for example, gives the following definitions:

translation: a written or spoken rendering of the meaning of a word, speech, book, or other text, in another language interpret: translate orally or into sign language the words of a person speaking a different language

So even the dictionary definition for interpret uses the word translate in its definition. No wonder there is so much widespread misuse.

But then again, is it really misuse if someone says translate when he or she is talking about interpreting? Maybe my professor was just too caught up in a distinction that wasn’t really there. Whatever the case, I’ve let it go. I’ve found that while I would prefer that there be a differentiation between the two words and that people stick with the strict meaning of each, but I no longer get upset when I hear otherwise.

Surprisingly, I’ll even catch myself saying one word when I really mean the other. (Not very often, mind you, but every once in a while I’ll let it slip.)

So if you’re a translator or interpreter that used to be like me and get annoyed when people interchange the two terms, try not to let yourself get too upset. It’s really not worth it, and it’s not going to change.

Probably ever.

Whether you’re an interpreter or translator, you should probably have your own website.

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