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  • Writer's pictureLara Fasoli


Updated: Jan 18, 2021

I thought it would be a good idea to start my client’s guide putting our best foot forward and discuss the difference between translation and interpreting. Is there actually one, you might ask? Indeed there is, and a big one. “Translation” is nowadays used as an umbrella term for any act of relaying a message from one language to another, with the internet full of such examples, and you might have come to my website looking for a translator, when in reality what you needed was an interpreter all along!

So, what’s the big difference?

To put it simply, translation is the act of rendering the written word from one language to another one, whilst interpreting happens when it’s the spoken word that is relayed from one language to the other. In practical terms, you can translate a book, a document, some slides or a certificate, and you can interpret a speech or a conversation, but not viceversa.

The same difference applies to the person carrying out the act of translation or interpreting: if you need your product description translated, you’ll need to look for a translator, whilst if you’re looking for someone who can assist you with the multilingual conference you’re organising, then you definitely need an interpreter.

Can’t one person just do it all?

It is true that you can find people who are able to offer both services, but that’s not always the case. I define myself as an Italian translator and interpreter, a colleague who studied with me on the same course and attended the same lessons only describes herself as an interpreter, as even if she studied and learnt translation skills, she doesn’t offer that service. So, going back to the question: technically, yes; but the reality is a bit more complex. Translation and interpreting might both entail the transformation of one language into another, but they do so in a completely different way as the medium they work with is completely different: written and spoken. This is why these two tasks are similar but not quite the same, and therefore need different skills to be carried out. This is also reflected in the fact that there are different courses taught for translation or interpreting: the latter is usually taught at an MA level or higher, and interpreting students more often than not will have studied translation on their BA or have some translation modules on their MA. This is why, to put it simply, most interpreters will also be translators, but translators usually aren’t interpreters.

Translation or interpreting

What are the skills you’re talking about?

Translators are taught writing skills, creative writing, stylistic differences between genres, registers and tones of voice, as well as research skills for content and terminology, terminology management, CAT tools proficiency and are equipped with in-depth knowledge of their own native language when it comes to grammar, spelling and punctuation best practices.

Interpreters on the other hand are trained in the note-taking technique for consecutive interpreting and in the simultaneous technique, needed at conferences and big events. This training focusses on active listening, multitasking, splitting their attention between listening and talking, public speaking, quick vocabulary and terminology recall as well as memory retention.

What can a translator do for you?

Translators can take care of the following projects:

  • Any type of document, and they specialise in different fields: technical, general, creative, medical and legal are the main ones.

  • Novels, poetry and non-fiction: this field is called literary translation and it’s a highly specialised sector of the industry.

  • Websites: for websites you will need to look for a translator specialised in localisation, who will be able not only to translate the copy of your website but also adapt it according to the culture and expectations of the target audience.

What can an interpreter do for you?

Interpreters enable communication between people who speak different languages in a host of different scenarios, from the humblest to crucial international summits. Just to give you a few examples:

  • Medical appointments

  • Legal appointments

  • Business meeting

  • Training workshops

  • Factory visits

  • Multilingual conferences and meetings

  • Institutions: EU bodies, UN, NATO, multilingual parliaments.

  • Diplomacy: state visits, presidential meetings.

So, do you need me as your Italian translator or as your Italian interpreter?

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