Carlie Sitzman MA, CT
Interpreter vs. Translator: What’s the Difference?
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Have you ever seen a host on a TV show walking around a foreign country with a bilingual person facilitating communication between the host and the locals? What would you call this bilingual person? A translator perhaps? And what would this person call themselves? An interpreter.
If this is giving you a linguistic identity crisis, you are not alone. Most laymen mistakenly refer to interpreters as translators all the time. There is one simple way to tell the difference: translators work with the written word and interpreters work with the spoken word.
Although both types of professionals are fluent in at least two languages and well-versed in the accompanying cultures, translating and interpreting are two very different skill sets. It makes sense if you take time to examine similar phenomena in the English-speaking world. Great writers are not automatically expected to be stellar orators. Public speakers also are not automatically expected to write well. That is what speech writers are for.
We’ll take a look at a day in the life of a translator and an interpreter in just a moment, First, let’s get a better sense of what makes translators and interpreters similar and how they are different.
Now let’s explore a day in the life of a translator and an interpreter. We will be joining two fictitious professionals as they go about their days.
Day in the Life of a Translator
This is Alice. She is a German translator who loves tea, baking cookies, and riding long distances on her bicycle.
Alice sits down at a desk in her home office to answer emails in her yoga pants and comfortable sweatshirt. She has received two requests from Germany already. Each request is accompanied by an email attachment containing the document to be translated. She reviews the documents before accepting the projects. It is important to be sure she is familiar with the subject matter and can do a good job.
Alice translates a set of diplomas from a German client into English. She will review them later to ensure there are no mistakes or typos.
A client has a question about a text Alice translated the day before. She reviews the file and comments sent by the client, then explains why she wrote it the way she did.
Alice continues working on a large project due in three days. It is a legal text being used for patent litigation.
It is time for lunch! Alice takes a much-needed break to enjoy some cookies and perhaps some food with nutritional value.
Alice starts working on her legal text again. It takes about one and a half hours to translate one page, which is why she needs at least three days for this 12-page document.
Alice reviews the certificates she translated earlier and makes necessary changes. She emails the finished product to the client, then continues working on her legal translation.
The day is over! Alice has completed one third of her legal document translation. She is on track to be finished on time!
Day in the Life of an Interpreter
This is Martin. He is a German interpreter who loves a good sandwich and enjoys reading while he is on the road.
Martin is up early. He has to be at the courthouse by 8:30 a.m. to interpret for a witness who is testifying. He puts on a nice suit and packs a bag with a pencil, pen, notebook, tablet, and packed lunch.
Martin takes the train to the courthouse. On his way there, he accepts a project for tomorrow. He will be helping a German film crew conduct candid interviews on the street in Baltimore.
Finally at the courthouse! Martin takes a seat and pulls out his pen and paper. He will use these to take notes as the witness speaks in German. When the witness pauses so he has time to interpret, he will use these notes to help remember the important aspects to touch on when he conveys her words to the court in English. This work is very mentally taxing, so the lawyer frequently gives Martin breaks to rest his brain.
It is time for lunch! Martin has made an especially delicious sandwich for lunch today. He was surprised to learn this morning that a car accident is involved. He researches legal procedures and terminology for car accidents on his tablet during his break.
Martin continues interpreting as before.
Martin rides home on the train again. The German film crew he will be interpreting for tomorrow will be doing a documentary on American fishermen. Martin uses the time on the train to learn everything he can about the fishing industries in Germany and the United States. He notes down any special terminology he finds and looks it up in the other language.
Martin arrives home and is glad to shed his fine suit. He does some plein air painting to relax.
Both Martin and Alice use their extensive linguistic and cultural expertise every day to help others communicate. Martin does this by listening and speaking, while Alice does this by reading and writing.
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