🇬🇧 Translator or interpreter? Let’s make things clear

There is no doubt the language industry is a fascinating sector, but it is also filled with false myths and stereotypes. 
If you are a professional translator, you will certainly have been qualified as an interpreter many times, or you might have been told: ‘Are you a translator? So you work in TV?’. 
The language market is constantly evolving. However, false myths remain. 
Here is some clarity on these two professions. 

Who is the translator? 

A professional translator is someone who translates written texts from language A (source or active language) into language B (target or passive language). Generally, translators translate from one of their working languages into their mother tongue, but they may also be commissioned to translate into a foreign language, for which they usually ask native speakers to proofread the text before handing it over to the client (revision or proofreading). 

Being a translator goes far beyond the mere knowledge of a foreign language. Translating means transposing the message conveyed by the author to the source text, but also interpreting, creating and respecting the culture of the source language. 

Very often, people think of the translator as a ‘living dictionary’, a polyglot who can communicate in several languages, but this is not the case. Of course, a good translator must have a perfect knowledge of their working languages and mother tongue, but knowing  a foreign language does not necessarily mean being a translator, or rather, being a good translator.

Translators have to complete specific training and keep themselves constantly informed about their fields of expertise.

Depending on the type of text, we distinguish different categories of translators:

  • literary or editorial translator: translates literary texts (i.e. novels, poems, essays) and editorial texts (i.e. articles, press releases, advertising material);
  • audiovisual translator: works in the film industry and translates films, TV series and documentaries, dealing with subtitling and adaptation of dialogues; 
  • technical translator: translates technical and scientific texts (i.e. manuals and legal or financial documents);
  • legal and financial translator: translates legal and economic-financial texts. In Italy, translators working in the legal field also deal with the asseveration and legalization of documents in court (sworn translation);
  • web translator: a recently established figure on the market who mainly translates online documents. 

Where does the translator work? 

The in-house translator works as an employee in a company or a translation agency. Otherwise, the freelance translator is a freelancer who can work for both direct clients and translation agencies directly from their office or their own home (with an organized workstation and lots of coffee! :)). 

Who is the interpreter? 

Unlike translators, interpreters are professionals who translate oral texts. Like translators, interpreters usually translate from one of their working languages into their mother tongue, but very often, depending on the context and needs, they also provide active interpreting. 

Interpreters generally work in international contexts, when mediation between individuals who do not speak the same language is necessary to ensure communication

Depending on the techniques used, a distinction is made between different types of interpreting. 

Here are the main ones:

  • consecutive interpreting: the interpreter listens to the speaker and, with the help of specific notes, reproduces the speech in the target language at intervals of 5 to 10 minutes. The interpreter and the speaker usually agree in advance on the pauses to be taken and the times to be respected;
  • negotiation interpretation: the interpreter enables communication in business negotiations and discussions (i.e. business meetings, commercial negotiations, conclusion of contracts, bilateral meetings, trade fairs) with a limited number of participants. 
  • chuchotage (whispered interpretation): the interpreter stands next to the listener and whispers the translation of the speaker’s speech into their ear. The translation is simultaneous with the speaker’s speech and, in the case of an active conversation, the interpreter also performs consecutive interpretation of the listener’s words for the speaker;
  • simultaneous interpreting: acoustically isolated in the simultaneous interpreting booth, the interpreter listens to the speaker’s speech through headphones and simultaneously translates into the target language through a microphone. There are usually two interpreters in the booth and they alternate every 15 minutes. 
  • conference interpreting: conference interpreting is employed during multilingual meetings. These can be conferences, presentations, or meetings between representatives of national governments, international organizations or non-governmental organizations.   
  • delayed interpretation: generally practiced in the media for the translation of interviews or speeches of foreign guests on TV. It is so called because the interpreter’s voice is actually delayed.  

Like translators, interpreters must also possess skills that go far beyond linguistic mastery: knowledge of the socio-cultural context in which they work, ability to handle stress and pressure, public speaking skills, speed and fluency, and problem solving skills.

Once again, a good knowledge of a foreign language is not sufficient to be a good interpreter.

Interpreters can also work as freelancers, but they generally work under contract in international contexts.  

Although translators may sometimes work as interpreters too, these two professions remain distinct, each with their own peculiarities. 

Translators deal with written texts and their best friends are a good computer, dictionaries, glossaries and accurate bibliographies. On the other hand, interpreters translate orally and their most trusted companions are an A5 pad and lots of pens

To sum up this brief analysis, here is the moral of the story: if he who is born round cannot die square, unicuique suum, ‘to each his own’ (job!). 

Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.

– George Steiner –

Articolo in italiano 🇮🇹 QUI
Version française 🇫🇷 ICI


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