Interpreter vs Translator – Differences and Similarities

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The biggest difference between this two type of professionals is that the interpreter’s role involves working with spoken communication, while a translator’s role involves working with written communication – websites, scripts, legal, technical or medical documents, manuals, and so on.

Interpreting is all about translating something that is said, and translation is about translating something that is written.

Whether you need a translator or interpreter depends on the situation you want the professional for. If it’s a live, on the spot translation for spoken communication, you need an interpreter. If you’re looking to translate written works you need a translator.  

Read more on Best Online Translation Tools recommended by Translators.

8 Similarities between Interpreters and Translators

Similarities between Interpreters and Translators

Most people know that translation involves retaining the original meaning of the source text, and not a literal translation. The words used are often different, but they convey the same meaning. Surprisingly, people think of Interpretation as a word for word translation – but that is not the case. An interpretation is often a paraphrased version of the original message.

Also read on the Top 10 Translation Problems and Solutions.

Before we delve into the differences, let us explore the similarities between the two sets of professionals.

1. Both need a Source and Target Language

Both linguists and translators work with a source language and a target language to carry out their jobs.

2. Both share the same academic discipiline

A translator is a professional who works with speech, and relies on their own knowledge and experience to deliver a paraphrased translation in the target language immediately and on the spot.They both study the scientific study of language: Linguistics. So, they are both linguists.

3. Ultimate Goals are the same

They both translate a message from one language to another. We can say they have the same primary goal.

4. Multilingualism is required

Both professionals have thorough knowledge of at least the two languages they work with. This includes fluency, sentence structure, grammar, idioms, slang, and more.

5. Cultural Knowledge is required

They both have an in-depth knowledge of the culture, customs, traditions, and so on of both the languages they work with.

6. Professional Qualifications

They both require professional qualifications to exersice their jobs.

7. Both are examples of Dynamic or Free Translation

Neither interpretation nor translation is a word to word translation, also known as Literal translation. On the contrary, they both exersice what translators usually call Dynamic Translation or Free Translation.

Want to know why translators use Dynamic Translation rather than Literal Translation?

8. Translations must retain Intact Meaning

Both translators and interpreters have to translate into the target language without changing the meaning of the message to be translated.

10 Differences between Interpreters and Translators

Interpreter Vs Translator: What Are The Differences?

True, they both basically translate from one language into another; however, there are several important differences too. Often though, these terms are used interchangeably, and clients ask for an interpreter when they need a translator, and vice versa, but those who are linguists themselves, or have in-depth knowledge of language, know the difference between the two.

So let’s see how these two professionals are different, and what their roles are now that we know the similarities. Let’s now dive into the differences between interpretation and translation:

1. Spoken vs Written Communication

As we already mentioned, the biggest difference between the two professionals is that the interpreter’s role involves working with spoken communication, while a translator’s role involves working with written communication – websites, scripts, legal, technical or medical documents, manuals, and so on.

Interpreting is all about translating something that is said, and translation is about translating something that is written.

2. Forth vs Back Translation

An interpreter is often required to translate back and forth; that is, from and into a particular language. When an interpreter is at say, the hospital, they need to translate say from Spanish into English for the doctor to understand, and from English (what the doctor says) to Spanish for the patient to understand.

Read more about this topic on Back Translation Definition – What is it and how does it work?.

Translators however, usually only translate into a specific language – they don’t have to translate from that language back into the original source language.

3. Real-time Translation vs Non-real-time Translation

Interpreters are required to translate in real-time on the spot; at conferences, meetings, TV coverage, signing for hearing impaired individuals, diplomatic mediations between nations, voice or video calls, on and so on. They have to listen very carefully to what the person is saying, retain it, and immediately translate it into the target language.

A translation can be delivered long after the creation of the source text. So a translator gets much more time to perform the translation, and can be more thorough and precise, and deliver high quality work.

4. Resources vs Knowledge

Interpreters have to rely on their learning, knowledge and experience as they have to translate immediately. They don’t have the convenience of any reference materials.

Translators, with more time on their hands can search online, use dictionaries, style guides, glossaries… They can even ask for help to other colleagues to deliver an impeccable translation.

Interpreter Vs Translator

5. Use of Tools and Editors

Once they have completed translating a document, translators often pass it on to an editor, who will check the document for accuracy.

No such process happens in interpretation, as live-translation leaves no time for editors.

6. Software and Technology vs Pen and Paper

A translator often uses technology and several reference materials to deliver accurate translations of written documents in their entirety. Translators often take the help of technology; they make use of software like translation memory, and other computer aided translation tools to deliver the best possible work.

An interpreter has no such facility. They have to deliver the translation right away, and have no way of accessing any tools – there simply isn’t enough time. At the most, they may have a pen and paper, and headphones. There usually isn’t time to even do a quick search on their Smartphones.

7. Different Levels of Accuracy

Translators are required to maintain a very high level of accuracy in their work.

Interpreters are not required to have such a high accuracy level. It is acceptable if the accuracy is slightly lower; the emphasis is on conveying the message without altering the meaning in any way.

8. Paraphrasing and avoiding phrases

Interpreters often convey the gist of what was said – they paraphrase it; often because there is no time, and sometimes because it is not really necessary to translate the entire speech; they have the liberty to leave out certain parts they deem unimportant to the main message an anecdote, for example.

A translator on the other hand, MUST translate the source document in its entirety; they do not have the freedom to choose what to translate and what not to.

9. Difference in Format and Style

Translators have to maintain a particular format and style of writing; there are different styles of writing for technical documents, legal documents, user manuals, medical reports, film scripts and so on; the translator also has to be careful with punctuations.

However, an interpreter does not have to bother with all these things; they have something else to worry about: they need to match the tone, the modulation and inflections of the speaker, because they are vital in spoken communication. These are verbal cues which convey a lot to the audience.

10. Payment methods

Interpreters are usually paid by the hour or the day, whereas translators are normally paid by the word or page, or in some rare cases, by the hour.

Also read on machine translation vs human translation.


Interpretation and Translation are two essential disciplines for any international business to be truly successful, because it is crucial that you communicate with audiences in different countries in their language, flawlessly and naturally. This could necessitate either translation, or interpretation, or sometimes, both. Both the processes are closely related, and quite similar to each other, yet they are also very different. They are used in completely different situations.

Often clients ask for an interpreter when they need a translator, and viceversa. So it is important for linguists to know how interpreters and translators are different and what their roles are. 

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