Why You’re Lucky to be a Translator

We translators have it easy. We’re not interpreters.

I’m sure to offend plenty of people by this post, but it’s true.

Interpreters have a much harder job than translators.

Some people might say that they are both hard (or easy) and that it’s just a matter of perspective.

Wrong. It’s no contest.

We’re lucky to be translators.

I’ve never done professional interpretation, while I have been a professional freelance translator for the past 10 years.

However, there was a time in college when I was introduced to what interpreters do on a daily basis. Part of the translation degree I earned required us to go through an interpretation module for a few weeks.

This entailed starting from the basics of interpreting, using a method called shadowing, to get an idea of what interpretation is all about.

For these exercises, we were in a booth with a pair of headphones and a tape recorder (OK, yeah, I’m old). As we heard the speaker on the tape recorder, we would have to repeat out loud what the person said. This is called shadowing as is one of the first techniques interpreters learn to become proficient.

Following that, we would then progress to do shadowing in our target language, which was Spanish for me.

Finally, we would practice interpreting.

It was at this point that I decided that interpretation was left to those much more capable than I and that I would stick with translation.

So what is it that makes interpretation so difficult? Here are three reasons:

1) Speed

Interpreters have no time to relax while they are interpreting. They gave to be able to think on their feet. The speaker is usually not going to wait for the interpreter to catch up if he or she falls behind.

This is even more difficult for interpreters that are interpreting between languages that have different language structures.
For example, I received an email from a Farsi interpreter who said the following:

In Persian, the verb comes at the end of the sentence. that’s the structure. And, when it comes to interpreting simultaneously from Persian into English, the interpreter comes up with a difficult task since you have to wait until the speaker finishes their sentence so that you might be able to interpret it into understandable English.

So before the speaker finishes his/her sentence, you won’t have a complete idea of what the verb might be. You need to be prepared for a lengthier shadowing.

Translators definitely do not have to deal with these kinds of speed issues, no matter what kind of deadlines they have.

2) Minimal Research Time

Professional interpreters sometimes have access to the speaker’s remarks beforehand or at least have an outline of what the speaker might cover during his or her speech.

However, this is not always the case, and almost no speaker actually stays with his or her remarks without deviating at least a little.

Interpreters can’t say, “Hey, wait, this isn’t in your notes! I need time to look that word or concept up!”

It doesn’t work like that.

If an interpreter doesn’t know how to convey an idea or concept in the target language, he or she better be able to explain it as best as possible, and do it in quickly, all while staying on task and following what the speaker is saying.

Translators, on the other hand, don’t usually have this restriction. They can stop, research, find the best way to convey a thought or idea in another language, and then write it down. Interpreters have no such luxury.

3) Work Location

Freelance translators can work almost anywhere. Most freelancers work out of their homes, local coffee shops, libraries, the park, or anywhere else they can find.

Interpreters, on the other hand, are limited in the locations that they can work. Sure, there are some interpreters that do telephone interpreting that can work from home or elsewhere, but this is not the norm for most freelance interpreters.

Instead, interpreters are often called to interpret at forums, conferences, business meetings, etc., and have to be on site in order to do the job.

This isn’t an issue for most interpreters, but most translators would hate to be constrained by their location, especially after having the freedom to work wherever they wanted.

So if you’re a high school or college student trying to decide whether you should do interpreting or translating, take these issues into consideration.

And if you’re a masochist, go with interpreting.

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