ULG's Language Services Blog

How to decide if you need an interpreter or a translator




While interpretation and translation are often used interchangeably, they are quite different and few people can do both successfully on a professional level. Despite sharing a foundation in linguistics, professional interpreters and translators offer wildly different skill sets. Each discipline is tasked with taking ideas and objectives expressed in one language and presenting them in a clear and understandable fashion to speakers of a different language, but how they accomplish this endeavor varies greatly from one another.

Simply put, an interpreter translates verbally, while a translator interprets written text. Few people can do both successfully on a professional level. This blog post seeks to shed light on these divergences, as well what to look for when hiring each.


Written Translation


Translators typically work on written documents, including contracts, medical documents, websites, subtitles or voice overs for videos, etc. An ideal translator should have at least three to five years of proven professional translation experience and specialize in a particular field such as legal or healthcare. They should also be a native speaker of the target language and be fluent in English. Native speakers understand the native language and culture of the target audience, In addition, they should also utilize translation memory, style guides and glossaries to maximize efficiency and mitigate translation risk. Most importantly, a successful translator will exhibit a knack for writing concise documents in your target language.


Verbal Interpretation


Conversely, interpreters, are involved in projects that require real-time translation such as conferences, medical appointments and legal proceedings. Interpreters must be able to translate verbally on the fly, often in two directions at the same time. Successful interpreters should be great listeners, as well as adept public speakers. Similar to a translator, interpreters need to be fluent in both languages and familiar with the cultures in order to translate colloquial phrases and other culturally-specific idioms in a manner their target audience will understand.


Beyond Language


It may sound counter intuitive, but in both disciplines, it often takes more than just a knowledge of the languages involved; the translator or interpreter also needs to understand the subject matter of the document or discussion. For example, when negotiating a contract or finalizing a legal document, it’s imperative that your translator possess a thorough understanding of your objectives, a familiarity with relevant cultures, a comprehensive vocabulary of legal terminology, and the ability to quickly express clear and concise concepts in your target language.

So, while translators and interpreters are not interchangeable, there are some similarities in what to look for such as a native speaker of the target language with subject matter expertise. Just remember the skills and tasks required are different for the two jobs. Translators need to be good writers who are adept at using technology, while interpreters need to be good public speakers who can think on their feet.

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