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  • Yelena McCafferty

Translator v Interpreter: which one?

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

As a full member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, I sometimes happen to explain to our clients the actual difference between translation and interpreting. The general public and even experienced journalists often confuse the two things. The difference is, in fact, quite simple: translation is working with a written word and interpreting is dealing with verbal speech, face-to-face or over the phone.

For most people it appears easier to use the term “translator”, however. Somehow “translation” seems to have embraced the general meaning of changing a message from one language into another completely and accurately. There are exceptions, however, and this week one of our clients who mostly works with interpreters, made a slip of saying that one of her letters would need to be “interpreted”.

I personally don’t take any offence if people generalise, especially as I am both a qualified translator and a qualified interpreter. But translation and interpreting require a slightly different set of skills.

When we translate, we have all of the resources available to us: dictionaries, online resources and - increasingly - translation memories which store databases of terminology we have used in our work.

When we interpret, the only memory we rely on is our own and it has to be well trained, especially if the interpreting process takes place simultaneously, that is the speaker doesn't make any pauses and the interpreter is catching up all the time with a delay of just few seconds. In consecutive interpreting, when the person we interpret stops after every sentence or two to allow us to interpret, we can and often use a notepad to jot down the main ideas which help us remember the content in the same sequence and applying the same logic. Unlike translators, however, interpreters don’t have the luxury of discussing a certain difficulty of a particular text with other colleagues.

I was recently on the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio Two where I talked about the importance of using professional interpreters and what can go wrong if standards or expectations are lowered. I've had a few messages from clients saying that they happened to hear the programme and if you wish to listen to it too, you can do so by clicking on this link. Happy listening!

[Tip: To contact our award-winning Russian interpreting service, call 0207 0436940 or email]



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