What is the Difference Between a Translator and an Interpreter?

The terms translator and interpreter are often used interchangeably — but did you know they are actually two separate and distinct types of professionals?
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Translators refer to professionals who can convert written content from one language to another, while interpreters refer to professionals who can convert spoken words from one language to another. Though there are many similarities between the two, key differences make the skills of translation and interpretation unique.

In this article, we offer clarity on the differences between translation and interpretation, as well as discuss what role translators and interpreters play in business.

What is a Language Services Professional?

A language services professional is a person who specializes in the conversion of one language into another. This person will be fluent in two or more languages, though many language service professionals are fluent in far more than two.

Though there are many different types of language services professionals, most can be categorized into one of two types: translators or interpreters. Some will have both of these skills, as both play a key role in understanding and converting languages.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at what translators and interpreters do.

What is a Translator?

A translator is a type of language services professional that converts written content from one language into another. Any type of written content can be translated, with popular types including:

  • Official or legal documents
  • Applications and forms
  • Emails and letters
  • Website content (landing pages, blogs, etc.)
  • Social media content
  • Instruction manuals
  • Scientific research reports and studies

Depending on where and from whom a written document or piece of content is coming, it may use a more standardized version of a language or a more regionally-specific dialect.

For example, an official document coming from a government agency will use very standardized language that is easier to translate from one language to another. This ensures that there are no miscommunications or unintentional conflicts between different international entities.

By contrast, a hand-written letter sent from one region of the world to another may contain a much less-standardized version of a language, even including colloquial words and phrases not included in the standardized version.

As such, it is incredibly important for professional translators to have specialized knowledge not just of standardized languages and their various grammatical rules but also of regional dialects and how they differ from their standardized counterparts.

What is an Interpreter?

An interpreter is a type of language services professional that converts spoken words from one language to another. This involves many of the same skills used in translation, as well as fluency in both standardized languages and various regional dialects.

However, interpretation involves listening to a language rather than reading. In turn, interpreters must have excellent listening skills, as well as specialized knowledge in exact pronunciations, regional accents, colloquial words, and more.

Interpretation tasks can include:

  • In-person interpretation (in which interpretation occurs face-to-face)
  • Simultaneous interpretation (in which an interpreter converts the language in real-time as a person speaks — this form of interpretation is often used in political speeches and live events)
  • Consecutive interpretation (in which a person speaks and then the interpreter converts the language, often used in trainings or meetings)
  • Over-the-phone (OPI) interpretation (in which interpretation happens over the phone, rather than in person)
  • Video remote interpretation (VRI) (in which interpretation happens via video conferencing technology)

How Do Translators & Interpreters Differ?

Although translation and interpretation hold many similarities — such as the need for fluency in regional dialects — the two skills also differ in many ways as well.

For example, a professional translator may be given many days, weeks, or months with a particular document, allowing them to take their time with a translation. This gives them the time to proofread and double-check their work, as well as take breaks while carrying out the translation.

By contrast, most professional interpreters are expected to perform the language conversion in real time and in front of other people. Many consider interpretation to be the more difficult of the two skills, as it also requires excellent listening and comprehension, as well as precise pronunciation on behalf of the professional interpreter.

However, both translation and interpretation can be highly complex in their own right, making it necessary for both professional translators and professional interpreters to have a high skill level and excellent fluency in order to serve in their positions.

What Role Do Translators & Interpreters Play in Business?

As we have discussed, there are many ways translation and interpretation can be applied in a professional setting — from converting official documents to offering different types of interpretation depending on what event or activity is occurring.

For businesses in all industries, translators and interpreters play a key role in global expansion. Without the support of these language professionals, it can be near-impossible to conduct business abroad successfully, as the need for language conversions is often needed in all corners of a business.

To better understand this, let’s imagine an E-commerce business that started out by shipping products to only the U.S. and Canada, but now wants to expand to Europe, Central America, and South America. For this business to expand in this way, it will need translators and interpreters to help:

  • Attract New Customers: First and foremost, this company will need to convert its marketing materials to the localized languages of the regions it plans to expand to. In order to avoid embarrassing mistakes, the company must rely on talented translators to ensure these marketing materials are accurate to the languages found in the regions they are being sent off to.
  • Work with Suppliers: Suppliers play a huge role in international business, especially for any business dealing with physical products. Having local suppliers in international regions is a necessity, as it can lower shipping costs and other inventory-related expenses. To effectively work with suppliers in other regions, language professionals are vital.
  • Sign Deals with Foreign Businesses: As a business grows globally, it may find itself in deals and partnerships with other businesses and corporations. Depending on where these businesses are located, the company is likely to need language professionals who can facilitate official correspondence, virtual meetings, and more.

What is a Language Services Provider?

A language services provider is a company or organization that specializes in providing translation, interpretation, and other language services to its clients.

While you can certainly choose to work with freelance translators or interpreters, acquiring the help of these talented experts through a language service provider ensures you are receiving the assistance of vetted and highly-trained professionals.

Additionally, working with a language service provider makes it easier to find translators and interpreters who are specialized in the exact languages and regional dialects you require.

Here are 3 key factors to look for when researching various language service providers:

  1. Regional Specialities: As mentioned, you always want to work with language professionals and providers who are not only fluent in the standard versions of your target languages but also the regional dialects found in various parts of the world. This will ensure that all of your written and verbal communication does not lose its cultural context in the long run.
  2. Industry Expertise: In addition to regional expertise, you should also seek out a provider that has specialized experience in your exact industry. Whether you work in healthcare, government, engineering, pharma, or any other industry, it is of the utmost importance to find a language services provider who knows the nuances of your field.
  3. Language Training Programs: Any business conducting business abroad or with customers of different linguistic backgrounds should have a strong language access plan in place. Language service providers that offer language training programs can help your business develop an excellent language access plan that ensures you have all your bases covered when it comes to working with people and businesses from around the world.

Final Thoughts: Gain the Advantage of PGLS’ Language Services

Here at PGLS, our dedicated team of language experts includes translators and interpreters who are fluent in more than 200 different languages and regional dialects.

Our award-winning company is committed to providing the best possible language services and solutions customized to your exact needs. With specialized expertise in a wide range of industries, PGLS has the experts you need for global expansion, developing a language access plan, and everything in between. 

To get started with PGLs, contact our team today.