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  • Writer's pictureStefanos Karampalis

Why a Translator is Not an Interpreter

When it comes to words, written and spoken, it is easy to get interpretation and translation mixed up. We tend to think of them interchangeably because in each case, it appears words are being taken in one language and made clear or known to someone in another language.

There is actually a marked difference between the two.

An interpreter takes an oral message, paraphrases what is being said, and speaks it in a language the target audience will understand. A translator takes a written message in one language, paraphrases it, and presents it to the target audience in another language.

They seem basically the same, yet they are very different.

For an interpreter, it is not enough to know different languages. He has to also be able to communicate the speaker’s style and tone, while also considering the culture and setting. While he listens to the speaker, he is also reading the audience and working to interpret the message so that it appears it was originally spoken in their language.

An interpreter is able to engage in simultaneous interpreting, which requires him to listen in one language while simultaneously translating in another language. You see this when an official is giving a speech in a foreign country, and his words are interpreted as he speaks. Or you may see this at court proceedings or news broadcasts.

Another form of translating an oral communication is consecutive interpreting, which requires the interpreter to listen to the speaker for a few phrases before providing an interpretation and then he provides the interpretation in the target audience’s language.

A translator is similar to an interpreter in the fact that the translator must also be able to express the style, tone, and intent of the written message, while also considering culture and dialect. Presenting the finished text as if it were written for the target audience is crucial, and this is another similarity between the two.

Unlike interpreters, a translator only works in one direction. He does not have to read the audience as he is trying to determine how to translate the text. While he must know different languages, he is only focused on one target audience and their native language.

A translator does more than replace a message word for word. He sometimes may find it necessary to retain elements of the culture of the source language in the message he delivers to his target audience. This means he must be familiar not just with the language he is translating but with the culture. Remember, the intent is to present a message written in one language to an audience that understands a different language, without losing the intent of the message, allowing for cultural differences, and keeping the style and tone in which it was written.

The translator is responsible for providing an interpretation of the written message while the interpreter translates the spoken message. Both require a love of language, knowledge of more than one language, and superb skills for delivering the message, spoken or written, as if it were meant for the target audience to begin with. That, indeed, takes skills few people have.

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