What is the difference between a Translator and an Interpreter?

I often come across people I meet who don’t know what the difference between a translator and an interpreter.  They might seem similar but the truth is a translator and interpreter work in completely different settings.

A translator takes a document in its original source language, the language it was first written in, and converts it into a target language, the language the client needs it in.  Translators only translate WRITTEN TEXT and sit in front of a computer with the document in the source language while translating and typing the new document into the target language.

An interpreter translates words ORALLY.  To break it down further, there are two types of interpretation, consecutive and simultaneous.


  • Simultaneous interpretation is used when someone is speaking and the interpreter continuously interprets their words without stopping.  Have you ever seen images of delegates at the UN, for example, and they have an earpiece attached to their ear?  Well the voice they are listening to is that of the interpreter’s and the interpreter is orally translating the words of the speaker into the listener’s language.
  • Consecutive interpretation is used when someone is speaking and stops, usually at the end of the paragraph, and then the interpreter jumps in and orally translates what the speaker just said. For example, if you’re at a conference where the speaker is speaking French, the interpreter translates into English at the end of each paragraph.

While I’ve never done any interpretation, in my opinion, being an interpreter is much harder work than being a translator. As a translator I receive a document, sit down at my computer and have time to think about how I want to word a sentence in the target language. Not happy with the sentence I wrote? I can go back and edit it so that it makes more sense. An interpreter, on the other hand, has to be ready to immediately translate the spoken word after just a few seconds. Sometimes, depending on the language and the grammatical structure of the language, an interpreter has to wait longer before translating the words orally and there is almost no room for error.  The interpreter cannot stop for a few seconds and search their brain for the word they would prefer to use the most. That information needs to be ready to come out as soon as they start speaking, which makes the job of the interpreter much more demanding and stressful.

Perhaps in the future I will consider interpretation for minor events in order to gain some experience, but for now I am happy just translating.

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