The Differences Between Translation and Interpretation

The differences between translation and interpretation may be bigger than their similarities, even if their purpose is the same. 

Micael Pinto • Updated on January 20, 2020
Micael Pinto • Updated on January 20, 2020
Flags of some countries representing the connection by translation and interpretation

The misconceptions regarding translation and interpretation are a result of their similarities. This is ironic, but true at the same time. Even if the purpose is the same – convey a message to the target audience – and you need to master languages to perform both, the means used by the translator and the interpreter are different.

In short, the major difference between translation and interpretation is the channel of communication. While translation engages written text, interpretation revolves around spoken words. Other than that, there are differences when it comes to skills, language knowledge, working material, execution and delivery.

Further in this blog post, you will find practical examples to make you understand clearly the differences between translation and interpretation, as well as their characteristics.

Skills Needed in Translation and Interpretation

The purpose of the translator is to recreate a text from a source language into a target language while preserving its meaning. In order to accomplish that, the translator must develop a certain set of skills. Knowing a foreign language isn’t enough to provide high-quality and accurate translations. Thus, the translator must be able to:

  • Perfectly master the target language.
  • Reasonably master the source language.
  • Know the culture where both texts belong.
  • Properly consult reference material.
  • Master CAT tools at ease.

Having a solid knowledge about the subjects you translate is more and more a requirement in order to ensure accuracy and make an appropriate use of terminology. In fact, the demand for specialized translators is increasing every day. Note that writing well in the target language is also extremely important since the text must be organized and well written.

On the other hand, a translator can’t necessarily perform the role of an interpreter. Even if the purpose is the same, it must be done orally, in both directions and on the spot. The degree of accuracy may vary, but this doesn’t make the task easy to perform. Moreover, the interpreter can’t resort to reference material and has no more than a short period of time to come up with the translation. That said, the interpreter must:

  • Master and express themselves perfectly in both languages.
  • Be bidirectional – ability to interpret in both languages.
  • Have top-notch listening, memorizing and note-taking skills.
  • Be familiar with technical vocabulary of the subject in question.
  • Be able to handle colloquialisms and cultural references.
  • Be comfortable speaking to audiences.

Contrary to translators, interpreters deal with audiences and, because of that, they should also be able to interpret without letting their nerves impact diction, synthetization and the coherence of the ideas to convey.

The Different Types of Translation and Interpretation

When it comes to translation, there are multiple areas in which translators can specialize themselves. Actually, some of these types of specialized translation are so relevant that most translators see on them an opportunity to add value to their skills. Below you can learn some of them:

  • Legal translation.
  • Technical translation.
  • Medical translation.
  • Literary translation.
  • Dubbing.
  • Subtitling.

Translators that specialize in one or several areas expand their technical vocabulary and become familiar with the rules of that specific area and the concerned text type.

For example, when dubbing or subtitling, there are several factors that affect the final translation. Among them are labial movements of characters, speech’s speed and limited number of available characters.

On the other side, when it comes to interpretation, the range of options is much more restrict. This happens because some language pairs don’t provide enough demand that justifies specialized interpreters.

Besides that, there are different types of interpretation based on the way the interpreter performs:

  • Consecutive interpretation.
  • Simultaneous interpretation.

Consecutive interpretation is generally considered more accurate than simultaneous interpretation. However, it takes more time. This happens because interpreters take notes throughout the conversation and, subsequently, convey the message to the audience.

On the other hand, in simultaneous interpretation, interpreters perform from a cabin at the same time as the speaker speaks. It allows the speaker to not be interrupted and the interpretation to be done in less time.

Members of the audience that don’t understand the speaker’s language will listen to the interpreter through earphones.

There are other types of interpretation, such as the whispered and telephone interpretation. However, they are used in particular situations, which can be personalized depending on the needs of the client.

Translation and Interpretation in Practice

Translators get the translation brief from their clients in order to get key information and deliver an outstanding translation. As translators don’t produce the result in real-time, they can resort to tools and resources in order to polish their work. Furthermore, this allows translators to be more detailed in their translation.

Example: The client asked the translator to translate a board game instructions manual. Thus, the translator and the client agreed on a deadline to deliver the translation.

Process: The translator gets the brief and reviews the document, trying to identify potential translation problems, such as cultural references, colloquialisms and terminology. Then the translator looks for material that can help them tackle these problems, such as similar documents, glossaries and dictionaries. After translating, the translator must take a 20-minute break in order to refresh their mind before proofreading the text. Finally, the translator can deliver the translation and add comments if needed.

Interpreters also need the brief in order to properly perform their task. However, unlike the translator, interpreters work in real-time, on the spot. In other words, the final product is delivered instantly to the client. Therefore, the interpreter’s task, in terms of linguistic mastery, is considered more challenging. Besides that, the interpreter’s workplace varies according to the client needs. Interpretation is also known as simultaneous translation.

Example: The client needs an interpreter to interpret from Portuguese to English and vice versa to carry out a live interview with a Portuguese tennis player.

Process: The interpreter should ask previously for any material they can use, as for example the questions which will be done by the interviewers. Be familiar with the technical vocabulary about tennis is also important. Note that the interpreter must be prepared to interpret in both directions (the journalist’s questions and the athlete’s answers).


At this point, you can certainly spot the differences between translation and interpretation. Although they have some common characteristics, translation and interpretation aren’t synonym activities. Obviously, this doesn’t prevent a single person from performing both activities as long as they have developed the needed skills to do it with professionalism.

Spread The Word ❤

Did you find this content valuable or has it contributed to your personal or professional development? Then consider sharing it on your social media or with a friend. That way you will be helping Alumiar Elísio grow and bring translation to more people.

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Micael Pinto
Micael Pinto

English and French to Portuguese translator and co-founder of Alumiar Elísio. Currently attending a master's degree in Specialized Translation.

Recommended Reading

© 2020 Alumiar Elísio. All rights reserved. Created with red heart emoji by Micael and Mónica.