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Are “interpretation” and “translation” synonyms? The short answer: no, but they share similarities. If you’re new to language services, here’s a quick guide to help you differentiate between interpretation and translation.

How interpretation and translation differ

Interpretation refers to converting spoken and sign languages into other languages, while translation converts written text from one language to another. Beyond being highly proficient, multilingual translators and interpreters require different skill sets and training.

Shared Skills

  • Cultural knowledge: Context adds a crucial element to spoken and written communication—interpreters and translators must understand values, customs, and norms to deliver a comprehensive message.
  • Ethics: Linguists often encounter confidential or sensitive information. Beyond protecting privacy, interpreters and translators must avoid additions or omissions while carefully choosing the best vocabulary to reflect the message’s meaning.

Interpreter Skills

  • Focused listening: When interpreters hear the spoken message or see sign language, they often use short-term memory or notes to keep track of the details they need to relay. Interpreters need to block out distractions and concentrate to maintain the pace of the conversation.
  • Adaptability: Interpreters may not know what to expect when a call comes in. They need to remain flexible and quickly tailor their approach based on the nature of the call—if an emergency occurs, the interpreter matches the urgency of the speakers.
  • Mirroring: Beyond converting words, interpreters often imitate the speaker’s tone and inflection. For example, during a customer service call, interpreters may smile while they speak to reflect the representative’s friendly tone.

Translator Skills

  • Reading comprehension, writing, & editing: Besides fluency in the source and target languages, stand-out translators are excellent writers and editors. Beyond checking for grammatical issues, translators help ensure new content has the same tone and brand voice as the source.
  • Attention to detail: Quality translations require consistency, accuracy, and localization, meaning the translation should sound as though it were originally written in the target language. Translators and editors thoroughly review for any inconsistencies in page numbers, formatting, etc. to keep translations professional.

Are you new to language services?

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Lindsay Lawson

Lindsay Lawson

An experienced researcher, writer, and editor on language services-related topics, specializing in interpreting and translation services, how language works.