12 April 2021

Translators and interpreters: the same but different?

Categoria: Linguistic Services

by Francesca Calabrò

Elena Ferrante’s American translator, TV interpreters on Oscar night, EU translators…

In today’s globalized multicultural world, we regularly hear the terms “translator” and “interpreter”.

We all know that – in general terms – translating means transferring a message fromLanguage A to Language B.

So are “interpreter” and “translator” simply synonyms that refer to the same profession, a bit like “teacher” and “educator”?

Those outside the language industry often use these terms without distinction, but in fact they refer to two different professions – albeit ones that share some similarities.

In the simplest terms, translators work with written texts, while interpreters work with speech.

Therefore, it’s right to call a person who translates an American novel into Italian a translator (specifically a literary translator in this case), while people who don headphones and grab a microphone to simultaneously translate a speech by a foreign head of state on live TV are called interpreters.

The confusion between the two terms is completely understandable, particularly when you consider that many professionals in this space work as both interpreters and translators.

Universities and other institutes usually offer hybrid three-year courses where students learn the basics of both professions, while this is then followed by a specialized two-year follow-on qualification where students decide whether to focus on written translation or interpreting. So, though there are similarities between the two professions, they still have plenty of differences and unique characteristics. By the same token, some skills are common to both professions, but others are specific to one or the other.

Let’s take a look in more detail together.


Key skills and attributes for a translator


When translating a written text, the first thing you need to remember is that in the vast majority of cases, translators only ever translate in to the native language. At least, that’s according to the best practices established by the main industry associations, with many companies – Way2Global included – committing to these through ISO17100 certification.

Now, you might think that sounds strange, given that foreign language skills are surely key to translation. Right?

Right. Every good translator needs to have a very strong understanding of the source language and culture, but this alone is not enough.

For example, to translate an American novel for the Italian market, the translator obviously needs an excellent command of English and a broad understanding of the culture, society and literary panorama of the United States. However, to produce a truly fluid, well-written and engaging text for an Italian audience, the translator must also have a perfect command of what we call the target language, in this case Italian.

Without delving too far into the realms of creative translation, transcreation and the specifics of literary translation, we can summarize the required skills for professional translators as follows:

1. Source language. Excellent understanding of original text’s source language, culture and society;

2. Target language. Impeccable command of the target language and excellent active skills in this language. Given the level of accuracy and linguistic sensitivity required, it’s vital that the translator have a native command of the target language – it’s the only way to convey all the nuances involved, use the most natural syntax or choose the right vocabulary, synonym or colloquial expression based on the register and purpose of the text and the expectations of the target audience. It’s vital that all translation choices maintain the original meaning and ensure grammatical and syntactic accuracy, but it’s also important that the finished product feel natural, flowing and pleasant to read.

3. Sector specialization. Excellent familiarity with the relevant field. As we’ve already seen, a translator working with American novels needs to be aware of the main literary trends in the USA, and the same goes for a legal translator when it comes to translating terms such as “whereas” in the legal context – it’s vital that they know who the parties are in the contract, how they should be referred to in Italian and what the various parts of any given agreement refer to.

Otherwise, they risk erroneously interpreting the meaning in English, perhaps simply using a general translation that doesn’t work in the legal context. In an area such as legal translation, simply being aware of specialist vocabulary and sector-specific jargon isn’t enough. When it comes to deciphering highly complex concepts in a foreign language, a translator needs to have a strong understanding of the basics of the discipline itself.

We can only translate a message effectively when we’ve fully understood the content (in the source language) and have succeeded in identifying the most appropriate way of reformulating that message in the target language.

Paradoxically, the sign of a good translation is when a reader doesn’t realize that they are reading one.

  1. On a practical level, a good translator needs to know how to correctly use glossaries and other terminology resources, not to mention other IT and technological. By using these tools, it’s possible to obtain a coherent, flowing translation where terminology is not only precise but also homogeneous within the finished document.
  1. Last but not least, a translator must be able to work well with deadlines and deal with changeable, intermittent demand – and they also need to be able to work independently, as this is a job that often requires you to spend long hours at a desk in front of a PC!


Key skills and attributes of an interpreter


Interpreters obviously need to have an excellent command of both the source and target language too, but the key difference is that – although they will need to have a broad understanding of their key field – interpreters always need to prepare thoroughly in advance of each assignment to come to grips with the specific subject matter. There is obviously no time for an interpreter to look up the meaning of a word or expression during the assignment – and neither can they spend time chewing over which is the most appropriate way of translating a particular term or phrase.

Having said that, the aim of interpreting is not to produce an absolutely word-perfect, polished translation. When we speak in our native languages, we interrupt, repeat and correct our selves and digress all the time – if we don’t completely lose our train of thought and have to start again!

On that basis, it’s impossible to remove these intrinsic characteristics of speech from an interpretation.

Greater leeway is given on terminological and syntactic precision because of the unique challenges associated with interpreting, which requires specific skills different to those needed for written translation.

Below is a list of the key skills interpreters need to have – many of which are completely irrelevant to translators.

1. Memory. Short-term memory and ultra-short-term memory. Whether it’s a consecutiveliaison or simultaneous interpreting assignment, all interpreters need to have strong powers of recall. Their task is to remember the information they hear – for a few seconds, if interpreting simultaneously, or for a few minutes, in the case of consecutive interpreting – before conveying this into a different language.

2. Concentration and multitasking. Listening, memorizing and translating a phrase while listening to and memorizing the next one – and continuing to do this for several minutes without a break – is something that requires high levels of focus, strong multitasking abilities, and a great deal of training.

3. Self-control, resistance to stress and emotional resilience. Interpreting saps a huge amount of mental energy in a short period of time. If an interpreter isn’t properly prepared for this, they risk delivering an under-par performance and disappointing a client. But more seriously, ill-prepared interpreters risk ending up mentally and physically drained from the rigours of their task.

4. Public speaking and diction. Good interpreters must be strong public speakers if they are to successfully operate at public events, especially high-profile international forums. It’s also vital that interpreters adopt the right intonation, adjust their volume and try to avoid regional inflections or vocabulary.

5. Ability to understand different accents, regional varieties and challenging dialects. Anyone who knows even a little English is aware that American English sounds very different to British English, within which the Scottish accent is at times wildly different to the English or Irish accents. The differences can become even more acute when you get onto Indian or South African accents, too.

It goes without saying that interpreters must be capable of understanding the words said during a speech, even where the speaker as a particularly thick or tricky accent.

This is part of the reason interpreters need to doso much preparation before an event, researching the accent or speaking style of the speaker (i.e. by looking for past speeches on YouTube).

6. Familiarity with different forms of interpreting. Depending on the type of interpreting assignment at hand, the interpreter will need to perform successfully across a range of different forms of interpreting (simultaneous, consecutive with or without notes, sight translation). This cannot be learned on the spot, but requires preparation. And interpreting techniques themselves are also evolving all the time, as in the case of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI), which has exploded in prominence in the last year.

At Way2Global, our vocation as a company is to offer quality translation and interpreting services that cover all possible language combinations.

Our network of professional, native speaker translators and interpreters specialize in a range of sectors and tick all of the boxes we’ve looked at in this article. We’re constantly nurturing and furthering their skills through training and continuing professional development, as required by our ISO 9001 status.

Need a translation or interpreting service? Get in touch!


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