What is the Difference Between Interpreting and Translating?

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So, What’s the Difference?

Translators work with written texts and interpreters work with live, spoken language. You don’t hire an interpreter to give you an English version of a Spanish document. You don’t hire a translator to attend a conference, don headphones and a microphone and render one spoken language into another – live (known as simultaneous interpreting).

Although some people do both translation and interpreting, almost all of these will admit they have a preference.

What can we deduce about both the personality types and the sort of training each of these highly skilled people have, based on the distinct media that they work with? What is it about the fact that translators work with text that allows us to make some accurate observations about the people who do this work? Likewise, what does the fact that interpreters work with live language tell us about them?

For starters, translators don’t like risk. They don’t like the limelight. In a nutshell: they are bookworms. They like to check their facts and go over their work. They are like marathon runners. They are introverts.

Interpreters are social animals. They accept risk. They are high energy. Interpreters enjoy the mystique of their job – the look of wonder on people’s faces when they can listen and then with seemingly little effort, another language comes out of their mouth. Interpreters are like sprinters. They are extroverts.

Both translators and interpreters have to be bilingual (a term I won’t bother unpacking in this article - it is too problematic). Both have to pay attention to detail, but in different ways. No doubt about it, in an ephemeral media like live performance, there is a higher tolerance for innovation – and for error. Translators really don’t feel good about that.

How do they use their bilingualism differently? Well, translators, being the endurance runners, tend to prefer reading a whole text from start to finish, front loading lexical research and other pre-translation analysis of a text before translating a single word. They like to critique the original (or source) text in their own mind. On the other hand, interpreters take their bilingualism like a high-wire act: no net, blindfolded and running on a tightrope. Sometimes they know they are about to slip but the audience usually never sees it.

Which is a “better” user of their skill? Which is a “higher” form? Neither is better than the other. Both professions have their risks and their important place in universal culture, business, diplomacy and much more.


  • Author’s more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.