Translation and Interpreting: a comparative analysis

“Do you study foreign languages at university? Oh well, then you should be able to translate and interpret everything as well!” “Translation and interpreting? Aren’t they the same thing?”.

How many times have you been told or asked these questions? If you are a translator or an interpreter, or even a language student, you surely have, maybe a hundred times! The two words are often used interchangeably, but each has a distinct role to play according to different situations. Even a bilingual can’t both interpret and translate. This article aims to analyze in depth what makes translation different from interpreting, the distinct skills and qualifications required for both, as well as their different typologies.


  1. Basic differences

Translation and interpreting have a common denominator that is language, as both translators and interpreters transfer information from one language, called source language, to another language, called target language. One of the first differences is that while translation deals with written words, interpreting has to do with spoken words. The translator’s job is linked to the written text, which he/she should read carefully to express its content with accuracy and to keep the original style and format. Since the translator scrupulously analyses the meaning of words and constantly revises them, translation usually requires more time and precision than interpreting.




On the other hand, an interpreter should be spontaneous and work quickly. This is the reason why he/she can rely on a sort of artistic license. Besides, the interpreter is both a listener and a speaker, and as he/she works in real time, there is little room to correct errors.

Even if a translator doesn’t have any immediate constraints, his/her task is always to search for accuracy, looking for specialist databases, working with aided tools and glossaries, doing researches to better understand the subject. Moreover, thanks to editing and proofreading, translation is always more accurate than interpreting.

On the contrary, an interpreter has a look to the general context to get the core of the conversation without using scripts and dictionaries but just relying on experience, good memory and quick reflexes.



  1. Skills and qualifications

The two fields also require different skills and qualifications. While an interpreter is required to have excellent listening skills, eloquence, accuracy of body language and tone, and the ability to process language and translation in his/her head simultaneously and to express them clearly and concisely in both languages, a translator is required to have excellent writing skills, time management skills, and the ability to cope with sensitive and classified information.

As for the qualifications, an interpreter needs a degree in languages or interpreting, and often a postgraduate qualification in interpreting, while a translator needs a degree and a postgraduate qualification in translation, depending on the industry. What they both need too is accreditation, that is the certification of authority, competency or credibility issued by accredited certification bodies.

Finally, they are both demanded to have cultural sensitivity, industry expertise and to be fluent in two or more languages.



  1. Different types of translation services

It is possible to distinguish eight main types of translation services:

  • Technical: from a broader point of view, it regards the translation of manuals, instruction leaflets, medical translation, financial reports. From a limited point of view, it may concern engineering, IT, electronics, mechanics, industrial texts;
  • Scientific: articles, theses, papers, congress booklets, presentations, study reports;
  • Financial: it deals with financing, banking and stock exchange activities, like company annual reports, financial statements and contracts;
  • Legal: it consists of legal translation, like summons and warrants; administrative translations, such as registration certificates and corporate statutes; technical translations of expert opinions;
  • Judicial: it usually refers to translations taking place in a court, such as letters rogatory, proceedings, judgements, depositions;
  • Juridical: laws, regulations, decrees, legally binding contracts, internal regulations, insurance policies;
  • Certified: documents with legal validation, which require the signature of the translator to be authenticated;
  • Literary: one of the most difficult type of translation services, because the translator should be able to render in the target language polysemic word plays, the author’s literary style, rhythm and balance, in poetry as well as in prose.



  1. Different types of interpreting 

As translation, it is possible to identify six types of interpreting:

  • Simultaneous: it refers to the process of memorizing the words in the source language while simultaneously translating in the target language. Usually interpreters work in a booth with headphones speaking in a microphone;
  • Consecutive: during this kind of interpreting, the speaker stops every 1-5 minutes to let the interpreter translate. In this case, many interpreters are used to take notes to avoid loss of details;
  • Escort/travel: the interpreter acts almost as an assistant and a cultural liaison, accompanying and helping the clients in their business trips;
  • Whisper: it’s quite similar to simultaneous interpreting, but the interpreter doesn’t use headphones and microphones. He/she sits next to the person and whispers the translation in the target language;
  • Scheduled telephone: it can be simultaneous or consecutive. In this case, the accuracy is lower, as the interpreting occurs via telephone;
  • On-demand phone: it is quite typical for individuals and organizations who need to communicate and overcome linguistic barriers immediately. Usually, a party calls a service, selects the required language pair and is connected to an interpreter.


So, translation and interpreting are two linguistic processes quite different from each other. All the differences listed in this article can be useful not only for personal knowledge, but especially in case you will need one of these two services: now you surely know who is the right person to speak to!




Written by Ilaria Cuppone




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