The inspiration for this article was a small brochure that I read describing various services a city organization can offer to its residents. In particular one paragraph read: "If you want to get a copy of this brochure interpreted in your language or if you would like to have a translator at any of the meetings, please contact us at …" I read this and reflected on my personal experience and how often people mix the terms "interpreter" and "translator" and use them interchangeably.
Once and again when I arrive at an office to interpret, I hear being referred to as a "translator". When possible, I correct the professionals who call me "translator" and explain to them that there is actually a difference between "interpreter" and "translator". Most of them do not work with interpreters and translators on a regular basis and as such they do not comprehend the difference between these two professions. Even those professionals that do work with interpreters and translators still use these terms interchangeably.
In my opinion, the professionals who work with interpreters and translators should be aware of the difference between these two terms and use them appropriately. At the same time, we interpreters and translators, should also take a proactive approach and try to clear the misconceptions and promote our professions.
When one talks about interpreting he or she refers to converting orally one spoken language into another. It is the process of facilitating communications between the parties that do not speak the same language. Translating on the other hand refers to converting written texts from one language into another.
Interpreters and translators are often discussed together because they do have some common elements and share common skills. Both work in one or several language pairs (i.e. English-Russian, Russian-German, etc.), which make them fluent in at least two languages. One language is active (native) and the other is passive (secondary). Interpreters interpret into and from both languages while translators usually translate only into their active language. Both tasks require accuracy, good concentration, subject matter knowledge, sensitivity to cultural issues, etc. These are, however, two different professions and most people are better suited for one or the other. Not all good interpreters are good translators and vice versa.
Interpreters convert one spoken language into another. This requires exceptionally good memory, ability to express thoughts clearly in both languages, subject matter knowledge, transmitting meaning and not a literal interpretation, some public speaking skills like verbal pacing, voice control, etc. An interpreter must interpret all utterances impartially, completely, without omitting, deleting or editing, without embellishments or explanations, and in such a way that the listener can understand. Interpreter should also follow the code of ethics including such professional standards as neutrality, discretion and confidentiality among others.
There are three types of interpreting: consecutive, simultaneous and sight interpreting. Simultaneous interpretation requires interpreter to interpret the message orally at the same time as the speaker is speaking. The interpreter usually sits in a booth and listens through a headset or other equipment. This type of interpretation is very intense and requires high concentration on the part of interpreter. That is why simultaneous interpreters usually work in pairs for 20-30 minutes each. Usually this type of interpretation is required at international or other conferences.
Consecutive interpretation, on the other hand, requires a speaker to pause every few sentences to allow the interpreter to interpret what has just been said. In this case interpreter usually sits near both parties. Most of consecutive interpreters take notes (dates, numbers, names, places) while listening to the speaker. This type of interpretation is used for person-to-person communication such as medical appointments, meetings with lawyers, interview situations, court hearings, etc.
Sight interpretation requires an interpreter to read a document written in one language and orally interpret the information into another language. This type of interpretation is used very rarely.
Being an interpreter does not mean that one person can cover all topics in all fields and industries. That is why many of the interpreters focus on one or two areas of expertise or specialize in certain fields. There are conference interpreters, legal (court) interpreters, medical interpreters, and guide or escort interpreters. Some of the interpreters do interpreting over the phone, but it also requires specialization. There are also sign language interpreters, which constitute a whole different group of interpreters. I am not a sign language interpreter and I will not discuss this group here.
Translators convert written materials from one language into another. This requires not only strong knowledge of grammars of both languages, but good writing and editing skills, analytical ability, accuracy and high attention to details, ability to use various reference materials and do research work. Translators do not just replace words with their equivalents in the target language, but convert ideas and sentences in such a way that the meaning stays the same and the whole text flows as if it was written in the target language. It can be a difficult task, especially if translator encounters upon some concepts in the source language that do not exist in the target language. Some words also make it difficult to translate them because they have multiple meanings making it possible to have several translations. In many instances puns, idioms, jokes, slang may loose their meaning completely in the target language, and the translator will have to accommodate for that in his or her translation. Translators also must be sensitive to cultural differences and provide some references or explanations if necessary.
Modern technology changed translation process significantly. Today all translations are done on the computers and submitted electronically. This allows translators to work virtually from anywhere and many of them work at home. Internet provides tremendous opportunities for translators to do research using on-line dictionaries and glossaries as well as find job opportunities. Nowadays many translators also use machine-assisted translation such as memory tools, which helps save time and reduce repetition.
As with interpreters, translators also specialize in certain fields and subjects, and many of them have degrees in subjects other than linguistics. Translator must be very familiar with the subject matter, which is why a judiciary translator, for instance, probably will not be able to provide you with a good medical translation (unless he or she specializes in medical field as well). Literary translators, perhaps, are at the top of the translation industry, the same as conference interpreters are at the highest level among all other interpreters. They translate books, poems, poetry and it requires creative writing among other skills. Literary translator must create a new text in the target language that reproduces the content and style of the original. There are not that many translators who do this type of job, but the ones that do it and do it well, definitely have fame and recognition in the field.
Localization translators constitute a relatively new and rapidly expanding specialty. Localization involves a complete adaptation of a product for use in a different language and culture. This primarily has to do with software localization, adaptation of web sites and various products in manufacturing and other business sectors. Translators that work in this area must have a thorough understanding of technical concepts and vocabulary, and have a strong background in computer science or related work experience.
Being an interpreter or translator does not mean simply being bilingual. It requires strong educational background and extensive training. I have many bilingual friends who are not interpreters or translators, and when on a few occasions they were asked to translate or interpret, they told me that they could not put two words together and that they had not realized how difficult it might be. Many of the interpreters and translators have bachelor's degrees, and some of them, especially who work as conference interpreters or in more technical areas, also have master's degrees. There are also opportunities available for interpreters and translators to constantly improve and master their skills.
Interpreting and translating can be a lonely job. Though interpreters usually travel to the location where their services are needed and they work in a variety of settings, translators usually work alone, and they must frequently perform under pressure of deadlines and tight schedules. There are some opportunities for interpreters and translators to socialize and share experience with their colleagues by attending various workshops, trainings, conferences, participating in professional associations and on-line forums, but for the most part, interpreting and translating is a lonely process. And it is due to their dedication and love of what they do, that many interpreters and translators keep going, taking great pride in their professions.