For some reason, most laypeople refer to both translation and interpretation as “translation.” Although translation and interpretation share the common goal of taking information that is available in one language and converting it to another, they are in fact two separate processes. So what is the difference between translation and interpretation? It’s very simple.
Translation is written – it involves taking a written text (such as a book or an article) and translating it in writing into the target language.
Interpretation is oral – it refers to listening to something spoken (a speech or phone conversation) and interpreting it orally into the target language. (Incidentally, those who facilitate communicate between hearing persons and deaf/hard-of-hearing persons are also known as interpreters – learn more.)
So you can see that the main difference is in how the information is presented – orally in interpretation and written in translation. This might seem like a subtle distinction, but if you consider your own language skills, the odds are that your ability to read/write and listen/speak are not identical – you are probably more skilled at one pair or the other. So translators are excellent writers, while interpreters have superior oral communication skills. In addition, spoken language is quite different from written, which adds a further dimension to the distinction. Then there’s the fact that translators work alone to produce a translation, while interpreters work with two or more people/groups to provide an interpretation on the spot during negotiations, seminars, phone conversations, etc.
Translation and Interpretation Terms
The language of the original message.
The language of the resulting translation or interpretation.
A language – Native language
Most people have one A language, although someone who was raised bilingual may have two A languages or an A and a B, depending on whether they are truly bilingual or just very fluent in the second language.
B language – Fluent language
Fluent here means near-native ability – understanding virtually all vocabulary, structure, dialects, cultural influence, etc. A certified translator or interpreter has at least one B language, unless he or she is bilingual with two A languages.
C language – Working language
Translators and interpreters may have one or more C languages – those which they understand well enough to translate or interpret from but not to. For example, here are my language skills:
- A – English
- B – French
- C – Spanish
So in theory, I can translate French to English, English to French, and Spanish to English, but not English to Spanish. In reality, I only work from French and Spanish to English. I don’t work into French, because I recognize that my translations into French leave something to be desired. Translators and interpreters should only work into the languages that they write/speak like a native or very close to it. Incidentally, another thing to watch out for is a translator who claims to have several target languages (in other words, to be able to work in both directions between, say, English, Japanese, and Russian). It is very rare for anyone to have more than two target languages, although having several source languages is fairly common.