Differences Between Translation and Interpretation

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Written by: pTranslate Contributors


When working with foreign clients, there can be language barriers that prevent mutual understanding and smooth communication. In many cases, a translator or an interpreter has to come in to help both parties bridge the language gap. A translator and an interpreter basically do the same job: adapting one language to another. However, there are vast differences between them, which can sometimes cause a bit of confusion to those that aren’t familiar with the terms in the language industry.

In this article, we will explore the differences between translation and interpretation, so that you, as a client or freelancer, can have an easier time distinguishing the two services.

translation vs interpretation

1. Translation deals with written documents, while Interpretation deals with real-time conversations

This is the biggest difference between translation and interpretation. The language medium that translators and interpreters work with aren’t the same.

A translator works with written documents. They need to read through and comprehend the source material thoroughly before using relevant sources, reference materials, their own linguistic competence, and their cultural knowledge to adapt them written document from the source language to the target language.

An interpreter works with real-time conversations. There are 2 main types of interpretation, the most common one being consecutive interpretation. This is what most people think of when we mention “interpretation”. The interpreter will listen attentively to the messages of both sides in the conversation. They have to immediately memorize the message of one speaker, translate it instantly in their mind within seconds, then report the message to the other speaker.

2. Translation is slower, while Interpretation is fast-paced

Based on the definition above, it is understandable why translation is a lot slower than interpretation.

When doing translation, especially Technical Translation, there is little to no room for error. Every single linguistic nuance must be transferred accurately. In Legal Translation, the level of precision required is extremely high, and it takes a lot of work to achieve such precision. It can sometimes take a translator 2-3 days to accurately translate a single page of specialist documents with a high frequency of jargon and complicated writing style.

However, it is worth noting that many translators nowadays are swamped with work. We are living in a fast-paced world, so many clients want to have their critical documents translated in a short period of time. Although the translators aren’t forced to provide a translation immediately, they still have to do it quickly while making no compromises to the quality in order to keep up with the high volume of work.

When doing Interpretation, there is no time to think. The interpreter has to translate the messages they receive as fast as possible and then convey the translated message to the people involved in the conversation. If their mind isn’t fast enough to grasp the message, process it, and adapt it to the target language in a few seconds, they won’t be able to provide a good interpretation service.

It is also worth noting that the level of precision required in Interpretation is not as high as in Translation. The Interpreter is allowed to filter out unnecessary information, leaving only the most important, most critical parts. Grammatical mistakes are mostly ignored, since after all it is spoken language, and there are not many requirements on Grammar.

3. Translation demands excellent Grammar, Reading, and Writing skills, while Interpretation demands excellent Listening and Speaking skills

It is hard to say if translation or interpretation is harder. Translation demands excellent Reading & Writing skills, while Interpretation demands superb Listening & Speaking skills, and they all have their own ease and difficulties to overcome.

When doing Translation, the translator must first comprehend the source material. The source material can sometimes be difficult to understand for various reasons, such as being handwritten. There are also many levels of understanding. It’s easy to grasp the superficial meaning of the text, but recognizing the tone, personality, style, and hidden emotions in the text and effectively retaining all of them while translating is an entirely different story.

For example, when doing Literary Translation, the translator must not only understand the meaning of the word but also the context that it is put into. A slight change of context is enough to change the meaning entirely. That’s not to mention the use of puns, sarcasm, irony, humor, and many other methods the writers can use to convey their thoughts. Preserving these unique aspects in a piece of literary writing is no easy feat to accomplish. The translator’s Writing skills sometimes must be on par with the writer’s Writing skills.

When doing Interpretation, on the other hand, the interpreter must have wonderful Listening skills. They must quickly grasp and translate within a few seconds. There are plenty of factors affecting the clarity of the messages. Some of them include the quality of voice, the accent, the speed of speech, the pronunciation. All of these factors more or less influence the quality of the translated message.

After that, the Interpreter must eloquently express the message in the target language. They must not have a heavy accent to assure that both sides involved in the conversation can receive the best interpretation.

4. Personality Traits

Of course, due to the vast differences between the 2 professions, not everyone can handle both jobs. Some personalities fare better in one profession than the other.

An analytical and detail-oriented person is perfect to take on Translation projects. Being analytical with words is sometimes more of a gift than a learned skill. Many translators at pTranslate who have been in the field for decades agree that in order to be good at translation, you need to have that “knack” for translation. Not everyone can pick up the linguistic nuances in language and effortlessly find an equivalent for them in the target language.

A translator must also be patient. In the process, the translator is likely to encounter new words or tricky sentences that they don’t know how to translate properly without stripping the nuances away. Many translators also admit that they have some perfectionist tendencies. They want to make their translations “good” and “flawless”. It is a pride of the translator, so if they are committed to a project, they will try their best to find the perfect word to convey the meaning. It is a labor of love.

Meanwhile, an Interpreter is a lot more sociable. The pressure of an Interpreter is huge, as there is no room to breathe, especially if they do Simultaneous Interpreting. They need to have a sharp mind, quick thoughts, and deep understanding of culture. Many Interpreters also need that “gift” to do this job. It is not easy to train someone to have a fast thinking process.

5. Translation can use some help from a lot of reference materials and sources, while Interpretation can't

While doing Translation, the translator can find a lot of help from various sources, such as:

  • Dictionary: a dictionary is a must for any translator. There are a lot of dictionaries too. There are dictionaries solely for idioms, phrasal verbs, and even slang. 
  • Google: Google is a translator’s best friend. In a lot of cases, the translator can simply do a quick Google search to find out the information that they need to complete their translation. For specialist translators, Google is a wonderful tool to keep themselves updated on the industry’s latest news. 
  • Translators’ Forums: This is where translators gather. Google is not the best assistant when it comes to translating difficult words. Translators can find fellow translators on translators forums and ask them for help on the tricky words they need to translate
  • Translation memory: Translation memory is a technology that helps translators greatly in their translation process. Translation Memory stores frequently encountered words and make suggestions for those words. Translators can choose to use the suggestions, or translate the word on their own. Thanks to Translation Memory, translators can speed up their translation process and improve consistency. For brands with a brand voice, Translation Memory can help them keep the brand voice across all languages, which is powerful from the Marketing perspective.

Meanwhile, Interpreters have no tools to help them increase their translation quality while they do the job. Everything has to be done on the spot. The best they’re equipped with are some devices to improve their Listening and Speaking capabilities.


Translation and Interpretation all belong to the Translation industry, yet they have vast differences. If one wants to perform Translation or Interpretation, they need to have relevant skills, talents, years of practice, and sometimes a “gift” for language, before they can be qualified as a professional. 

Do you have any questions on the differences between Translation and Interpretation? Feel free to ask in the comments!

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