An Introduction to Translation and Interpretation

What are they and what's the difference between the two?

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Translation and interpretation are the ultimate jobs for people who love language. However, there are a lot of misunderstandings about these two fields, including the difference between them and what kind of skills and education they require. This article is an introduction to the fields of translation and interpretation.

Both translation and interpretation (sometimes abbreviated as T + I) require superior language ability in at least two languages. That may seem like a given, but in fact, there are many working translators whose language skills are not up to the task. You can usually recognize these unqualified translators by extremely low rates, and also by wild claims about being able to translate any language and subject.

Translation and interpretation also require the ability to accurately express information in the target language. Word for word translation is neither accurate nor desirable, and a good translator/interpreter knows how to express the source text or speech so that it sounds natural in the target language. The best translation is one that you don't realize is a translation because it sounds just like it would if it had been written in that language to begin with. Translators and interpreters nearly always work into their native language, because it's too easy for a non-native speaker to write or speak in a way that just doesn't sound quite right to native speakers. Using unqualified translators will leave you with poor-quality translations with mistakes ranging from poor grammar and awkward phrasing to nonsensical or inaccurate information.

And finally, translators and interpreters need to understand the cultures of both the source and target languages, in order to be able to adapt the language to the appropriate culture.

In short, the simple fact of speaking two or more languages does not necessarily make a good translator or interpreter — there's a lot more to it. It is in your best interest to find someone who is qualified and certified. A certified translator or interpreter will cost more, but if your business needs a good product, it is well worth the expense. Contact a translation/interpretation organization for a list of potential candidates.

Translation vs. Interpretation

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 communication between hearing persons and deaf/hard-of-hearing persons are also known as interpreters.

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 writing, 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

Source languageThe language of the original message.

Target languageThe language of the resulting translation or interpretation.

A language - Native languageMost 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 languageFluent 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 languageTranslators 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, you can translate French to English, English to French, and Spanish to English, but not English to Spanish. In reality, you only work from French and Spanish to English. You wouldn't work into French, because you 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.

Types of Translation and Interpretation

General translation/interpretation is just what you think — the translation or interpretation of non-specific language that does not require any specialized vocabulary or knowledge. However, the best translators and interpreters read extensively in order to be up-to-date with current events and trends so that they are able to do their work to the best of their ability, having knowledge of what they might be asked to convert. In addition, good translators and interpreters make an effort to read about whatever topic they are currently working on. If a translator is asked to translate an article on organic farming, for example, he or she would be well served to read about organic farming in both languages in order to understand the topic and the accepted terms used in each language.

Specialized translation or interpretation refers to domains which require at the very least that the person be extremely well-read in the domain. Even better is training in the field (such as a college degree in the subject, or a specialized course in that type of translation or interpretation). Some common types of specialized translation and interpretation are

  • financial translation and interpretation
  • legal translation and interpretation
  • literary translation
  • medical translation and interpretation
  • scientific translation and interpretation
  • technical translation and interpretation

Types of Translation

Machine translation
Also known as automatic translation, this is any translation that is done without human intervention, using software, hand-held translators, online translators such as Babelfish, etc. Machine translation is extremely limited in quality and usefulness.

Machine-assisted translation
Translation that is done with a machine translator and a human working together. For example, to translate "honey," the machine translator might give the options le miel and chéri so that the person could decide which one makes sense in the context. This is considerably better than machine translation, and some argue that it is more effective than human-only translation.

Screen translation
Translation of movies and television programs, including subtitling (where the translation is typed along the bottom of the screen) and dubbing (where the voices of native speakers of the target language are heard in place of the original actors).

Sight translationDocument in the source language is explained orally in the target language. This task is performed by interpreters when an article in the source language is not provided with a translation (such as a memo handed out at a meeting).

Adaptation of software or other products to a different culture. Localization includes translation of documents, dialog boxes, etc., as well as linguistic and cultural changes to make the product appropriate to the target country.

Types of Interpretation

Consecutive interpretation (consec)
The interpreter takes notes while listening to a speech, then does his or her interpretation during pauses. This is commonly used when there are just two languages at work; for example if the American and French presidents were having a discussion. The consecutive interpreter would interpret in both directions, French to English and English to French. Unlike translation and simultaneous interpretation, consecutive interpretation is commonly done into the interpreter's A and B languages.

Simultaneous interpretation (simul)
The interpreter listens to a speech and simultaneously interprets it, using headphones and a microphone. This is commonly used when there are numerous languages needed, such as in the United Nations. Each target language has an assigned channel, so Spanish speakers might turn to channel one for the Spanish interpretation, French speakers to channel two, etc. Simultaneous interpretation should only be done into one's A language.

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Team, ThoughtCo. "An Introduction to Translation and Interpretation." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Team, ThoughtCo. (2021, December 6). An Introduction to Translation and Interpretation. Retrieved from Team, ThoughtCo. "An Introduction to Translation and Interpretation." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).