Interpretation vs. Translation: Understanding the Key Differences

7 min read

Interpretation and translation both promote breaking down language barriers, facilitating communication, and bringing cultures together. And while most people use the terms “interpreter” and “translator” interchangeably, the two disciplines require a different skill set and are rarely conducted by the same people. Outside of the language service industry, the terminology can be confusing. Understanding the intricacies of each unique medium will make it easier for organizations looking to partner with a language provider to acquire the solutions they need. 

The first major distinction between interpretation and translation is that interpretation is spoken, and translation is written. On the surface, this is the defining characteristic that sets each apart from the other. But let’s take a deeper dive into three key differences. 

1. Translation is Performed Over Time, Interpretation is Immediate

Interpretation is executed in real-time either over the phone, in person, or via video. During conversation, an interpreter needs to listen for, not only the words being spoken, but also the nuances, meanings, and tones being delivered. In many languages there are words that don’t always have an exact equivalent in another language. In these cases, an interpreter will have to think quick on their feet to render the meaning of what is being said and keep the conversation moving without losing accuracy. 

Since translation renders the meaning of the written word from one language to another, it doesn’t entail the same immediacy as live interpretation. Translation occurs subsequent to the development of the source and affords the translation team time to utilize terminology resources, parallel texts, specialized technology, and other support tools to ensure the text is translated exactly as the author intended. 

2. Fluency and Direction 

Interpreters need to be fluent in both languages they work with. During quick back-and-forth exchanges the ability to instantly understand what is being said and relay that information accurately is critical to the task at hand. They need to work well under pressure and have superb communication skills. 

While translators need native fluency in the source language as well as the target language, they only work into their native language. They must have remarkable comprehension skills and an almost innate ability to transfer from the source language to the target language. They have the option of consulting terminology resources, specialized subject-area reference material, and making use of the most current technology to support their work.  

3. Collaboration 

While both interpretation and translation require teamwork, the people they work with are quite different. Interpreters work directly with clients and their limited English proficient customers or patients in realtime. They depend on their memory and fluency in the two languages to quickly work with each speaker in the absence of any external tools or resources for support. 

In translation, a project can go through several stages and edits, and involve a team of translators, editors, proofreaders, and project managers all working together to assure that the intended meaning of the original material is kept intact. Translators rely on their expert reading comprehension skills, and their ability to accurately render written material into the target language. 

Interpretation and translation are closely related in that they bring cultures together and remove language barriers; however, the skill sets required are ultimately quite different. Understanding these key differences can make it easier to navigate the solutions offered by language service providers. 

Learn more about LSA’s interpretation and translation services today! 

Contact our team at 800.305.9673 X55305 or fill out our contact form in seconds.

About LSA 

Language Services Associates (LSA) offers a full suite of language interpretation solutions to help optimize the experience of limited English proficient customers and patients. Providing native language support improves the efficiency and productivity of staff, raises customer satisfaction levels, and builds loyalty. For more than 2,000 clients worldwide, in more than 230 languages, LSA provides a competitive differentiator in the healthcare, government, financial and banking, insurance, entertainment, hospitality, and manufacturing industries.