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When to Use Interpretation vs. Translation

Oct 10, 2017

As a leading language solutions provider, we know that people can be uncertain about the difference between — and appropriate use of — interpretation services and translation services.

Both are forms of conveying meaning from one language into another — and both require highly developed language skills — but they are two very different things.   


Choosing the right service

At the most basic level, interpretation deals with spoken language while translation is used for written language. Here are four important differences:

1.  Timing 

  • An interpreter works in real time or with only a slight delay on-site or on the phone. 
  • translator works on a document after it’s been written, which means there’s time to consult with subject matter experts and employ dictionaries and other resources as needed. 

2.  Accuracy 

  • An interpreter must faithfully distill and convey the meaning of the original speech instantaneously, and therefore may at times omit less-critical details. 
  • translator converts from one language to another with every single detail adapted to the final language.   

3.  Fluency 

  • An interpreter must be fully fluent in both languages so that he or she can seamlessly convey meaning from one language to another. 
  • translator typically translates from a foreign language into his or her own native tongue. As such, a translator must understand the foreign language, but not as fluently as their own tongue. (Remember, translators have the luxury of reference materials while interpreters don’t.) 

4.  Subtleties 

  • An interpreter must be conversant in both languages’ cultural expressions, metaphors and slang. Additionally, interpreters must transmit verbal nuances like tone, pitch, volume, speed and inflection. 
  • translator must recognize and understand the original language’s idioms and metaphors, and be able to convert them into those of his or her native language. 


Types of interpretation  

There are two main modes of interpretation:  

  • Simultaneous — Simultaneous interpretation takes place in real time, with the interpreter converting a speaker’s words and meaning into a second language as he or she is talking. The interpreter may be in a booth, listening on headphones to the original speaker and interpreting into a microphone for the target-language audience (which may include other interpreters reproducing the content in their own native tongue). They may be seated or standing near the target listener or audience, whispering the interpretation, or as a participant in a conference call. The instantaneous nature of simultaneous interpretation makes it indispensable for a range of settings, including meetings or conferences, and it can be a critical asset in legal and medical contexts. Since it’s highly demanding for the interpreter, it’s common practice to have two interpreters working together, relieving each other periodically.  
  • Consecutive — Consecutive interpretation takes place when a speaker pauses periodically to allow an interpreter to convey his or her most recent statement to the target audience before proceeding. The interpreter typically sits or stands next to the speaker, taking notes as needed to help relay everything the speaker just said.  

Both types of interpreters should understand the subject matter at hand. In a hospital context, there are medical interpreters; in a court room, there are interpreters who specialize in legal interpretation – all of whom must convey thoughts and concepts clearly, and work well under pressure.  


The translation process  

Professional translation services use a multi-step process involving a combination of Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT) tools and human expertise to provide high-quality translations of written materials. A typical workflow might look something like this: 

  • The process begins with the source material being converted into a data format — typically Rich Text Format (RTF) – that can be understood by Translation Memory (TM) software.  
  • TM software searches for and retrieves existing translated text that matches the content of the current work to help ensure accuracy and consistency across projects.
  • A human translator fluent in the target language goes over each of these matched sections, and makes corrections as required.  
  • The translator translates remaining content that hasn’t been matched to previously translated text.  
  • A second translator fluent in the target language proofs and edits the first translator’s work, making refinements as necessary.  
  • Desktop publishing restores the document as closely as possible to its original English design and layout so that the finished translation looks just like the original. 

Another popular tool your language services provider can utilize is Machine Translation, an automated translation process that gives readers the “gist” of a document. Machine translation is often paired with human post-editing for projects where higher quality is required but the budget is limited.    


Making the right choice  

In today’s ever-shrinking world, it would be hard to overstate the importance of clear, accurate communication across languages and cultures. At the center of these international conversations are skilled and dedicated interpreters and translators whose hard work helps ensure that we understand each other, and who help make it possible for us to realize the potential in what we might accomplish together. 


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