What Is The Difference Between Translation And Interpreting?

What Is The Difference Between Translation And Interpreting?

Translation and Interpretation

In today’s global economy, businesses and organizations increasingly depend on language services to conduct business both at home and abroad. Whether entering a new market or currently working with multilingual populations, ensuring your message is being understood across cultures is key to building trust and long-lasting success with your consumers. There are a growing number of different language services that can help you reach your target audience in their native language, but the two most well-known are interpretation and translation.

Many use the terms interchangeably, but they’re distinct professional services in the linguistic field. While both need an in-depth understanding of at least two languages, a different set of skills is required to facilitate each service. A skilled interpreter may not make a good translator and vice versa.

To provide the best language solutions, it’s important to know the differences between each service.

What is Translation?

Translation is the act of transferring written material from one language into equivalent written material in another language. Websites, apps, software, and formal documents are all examples of the types of content usually translated. Translators have a variety of tools at their disposal, including style guides, translation memories, reference materials, and glossaries.

While these tools assist with the process, they don’t replace the human element needed by a professional translator. A translator must understand the subtle context clues and cultural nuances in both languages to ensure the intent and meaning of the text is conveyed accurately. They must also retain the same written text format, visual style, and approximate size of the written material.

What is Interpreting?

Interpretation is the act of converting meaning between two languages in real-time, orally, or as in the case of sign language, visually. Most interpreters work either simultaneously with the speakers or consecutively after the speaker has spoken. While working, they cannot interject their opinion and must focus on conveying the meaning and tone as accurately as possible.

Interpreters must stay attentive at all times. Not only are they interpreting the information accurately, but they’re also accounting for context clues and rephrasing idioms or colloquialisms in a way that makes sense to the target audience. Often, interpreters rely on their quick wits and memory in addition to their solid grasp of the two languages.

Whenever two or more people speak different languages and need to communicate in the moment, an interpreter can offer their professional services. This can take place across a variety of industries, but interpreters are typically found at conferences, large meetings, TV coverages, legal proceedings, or medical appointments.

While interpreting is sometimes between two spoken languages, it also includes American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is usually interpreted simultaneously, and depending on the duration and subject matter, it can require multiple interpreters.

Do I Need an Interpreter or a Translator?

Deciding whether you need a professional translator or interpreter depends on the goals and requirements of your organization. While both fields work with a source and target language, they play different roles and use distinct skill-sets in the delivery of their service.

If you need a language service for a live-action speech, you’ll use an interpreter with deep knowledge to convey the message to your target audiences. If you’re working with websites, documents, or any other written materials, a translator is needed to work with the source and target languages of the text.

The Differences Between Translation and Interpretation

Aside from the main distinction in terms of format, there are additional differences that your organization should keep in mind.


Interpretation often takes place in real-time, meaning the interpretation is happening as the conversation or message is being delivered. Interpreters must ensure that both parties involved are effectively communicating with one another. There are different types of interpreting including on-site, virtual, conference, phone, and video remote interpreting (VRI).

Since translation projects can vary in size and subject matter, translators rely heavily on project management tools and industry-specific knowledge. In addition to their proficient writing abilities in the target language, they’re often required to transcreate images and format text to produce the final deliverable.


Translators work to produce a highly accurate deliverable in the target language. Many language agencies adhere to a series of cross-checks and workflows to verify the accuracy and quality of the translation. This can include multiple rounds of editing and proofreading by different parties ensuring the materials align with the client’s translation objectives. These best practices are a requirement for any language service company certified to ISO 9001:2015 and ISO 17100.


Written, spoken, and signed language services require fluency. An interpreter must be fluent in both the source and target language in order to interpret both ways. While a translator has to be fluent in the target language, they may not be as fluent in the source language. Though their level of proficiency and comprehension is high in both, their main focus is on the deliverable of the target language. However, there are several instances where translation services require fluency in both the source and target languages, such as literary and website translations.

Examples of Translation vs. Interpreting

Common examples of translation include literary works, technical instructions, website or software content, medical research, formal documents, and more. Any written materials that involve more than one language will need to be translated. The breadth and scope of the translation world requires finding translators that are subject matter experts in the specific industries involved.

Interpreting also covers a wide array of communication. It’s most often used in meetings between various people such as legal proceedings, conferences, and medical appointments. Live broadcastings of press conferences commonly use interpretation to ensure information is disseminated to multiple audiences.

The Deaf and hard of hearing community frequently use ASL interpreting services to communicate with the hearing population. Similar to spoken languages, sign languages experience cultural and geographic differences depending on the setting and location. An excellent ASL interpreter will also understand local variances and nuances to adapt accordingly.

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Is translation more effective than interpretation?

That depends on the needs of your organization or business. If written materials are involved, translation services will produce the best language solution. If live communication is taking place, an interpreter will provide effective communication to ensure all parties present understand each other.

What is an interpreter?

An interpreter is someone who assists two or more people in communicating in more than one language in real-time. This may include interpreting a two-way conversation, and so involve actively speaking more than one language.

What is a translator?

A translator is someone who adapts written content from one language to another. Professional translation services convey the nuances of the written target language, such as cadence, format, and size. This is especially important when working with graphic elements, such as billboards, advertisements, and web design, where the visual aspects of the media must translate as well as the words themselves.

What are the types of interpretation?

  • Simultaneous: The interpreter speaks in unison with the person speaking. This commonly takes place at conferences or large meetings involving multiple languages like the United Nations.
  • Consecutive: The interpreting happens directly after the speaker has spoken. This type is the most common form of interpreting for smaller meetings or appointments.
  • Summary: The interpreter delivers a summary of what the speaker said.