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What is the Difference Between an Interpreter and a Translator?

It is easy to get the terms interpreter and translator confused. That’s because “translation” can mean conversion from one language to another, in a general way. Typically, the title “translator” is mistaken for “interpreter.” Saying “translation” when meaning “interpretation” is also common. Even if you know the difference, sometimes the wrong word pops out.

When seeking a language professional, the differences between translation and interpretation become more important. There are four parts to knowing a language. They are reading, writing, speaking and listening.

The main difference between interpretation and translation cuts them into two pairs. Translators work with reading and writing. Interpreters must listen and speak. We’ll dive deeper into these two jobs of linguistic and cultural expertise.

Interpreters and Translators Language Skills

Listening and speaking are the domain of interpreters, so what they produce are spoken-word conversions. Interpreters work by listening to the source language, then saying the same information aloud in the target language. Interpreters usually use their native language. Some know more than two languages. The two main divisions are simultaneous interpreting and consecutive interpreting (detailed later). Many interpreters specialize in certain subject matter, such as medical or legal interpreting.

Interpretation changes the spoken word; translation changes the written word. Translators read the written text in the source language and write it in the target language. Computer-aided translation can accelerate the process. Translators’ target audience may include professionals and their clients. Any information that should be guaranteed in written text, like contracts, offers or health information, should be translated for speakers of other languages. However, not all translations are so serious. Translating books or other entertainment is a fun opportunity to expand information into the target language.

Differences Between Translators and Interpreters

Interpreters and translators have interesting jobs that can involve fascinating situations. By glancing at the differences between translators and interpreters, a day in the life of these linguistic gurus is easier to envision. Translators and interpreters show us the power of the human mind!


Translations are usually carried out on written documents, so translators receive more time to work. Increasingly, people can translate conversations in written form due to digital conversations like online help chats. Still, we mostly think of long-form documents, medical flyers and many types of paperwork that need translating from the source language to the target language. Meanwhile, interpreters fly through communicative tasks, often without reference materials.


Translation prioritizes accuracy more. That’s not to say interpreters don’t try to be highly accurate. Rather, there is an opportunity for a translation to attain a higher degree of correctness because most translations don’t occur in real time. Also, important information tends to be written down. Any language that is binding, personal or precise must be recorded in written form, then translators or professional translation services render it in the target language.

Use of Resources

While translators have the time and freedom to use reference materials to improve their conversion, interpreters usually do not. To translate from the source language into the target language, some translators work by consulting dictionaries and language tools. They may even ask colleagues. Although most interpreters would love to research for greater accuracy, interpreters must always consider the clock.


When speaking of “certified” language conversion, “certified” breaks down in different ways. A translation can be certified, which means the document itself has been verified for correctness by the translator or translating service. An interpretation itself doesn’t usually get certified. Meanwhile, translators and interpreters can attain a certification as a credential from an organization like the American Translators Association.

The main difference is that a “certified translation” is common. Speaking of a “certified interpretation” is rare in the US. A “certified interpreter” is common, though.

Specialized Interpretation and Translation

Both translators and interpreters can benefit from specializing in certain industries or fields. One advantage is working with a smaller range of concepts and words. Nevertheless, some fields continually add new vocabulary.

Translators and interpreters get compensated for specializing and sometimes for proving they have updated their vocabulary. The need for subject matter specialization of translators and interpreters can depend on the number of speakers of their common source language and their common target language in their geographic area. It also depends on the local industries and organizations dealing with that subject matter.

Common Fields Requiring Linguists


Medical interpreters and translators are very prevalent. Under various laws, people have a right to receive healthcare information in their preferred language (in the US).


Legal information and contracts are commonly converted to a party’s native language. If something is legally binding, criminal or deals with a change in legal status, those who prefer other languages need first-language information.


The families of grade school students have a right to communicate in their first language. Educational spoken language solutions may take the form of bilingual staff as well as interpreters.


The field that doesn’t just feel the effects of globalization but also seeks its opportunities, business pushes for both spoken-language and written-word solutions. They may hire bilingual employees. Using interpreters and translators to meet potential clients’ needs is another tactic.

Translation and Localization

A service related to translation is localization. It adapts all aspects of communication and meaning to the local area. For example, after a website is localized, it may display not just the target language, but also the correct currency and numerical representations.

Spotlight on Interpretation Types

There are two major divisions of interpreting. They are the slower-paced, solo “consecutive interpreting” or the faster-paced “simultaneous interpreting.” After looking at the setting and objectives of these interpreting options, the appropriate choice for your organization will become clear.

Consecutive Interpreting

Consecutive interpreting takes place in calmer environments that allow more time. These include regular meetings and business interactions along with most medical situations and legal interpretations outside the courtroom. An attorney-client conversation may not seem like a calm situation. However, this relative privacy affords more flexibility than a courtroom or negotiation with the other side.

Consecutive interpretation is usually easier to set up and execute. Typically, one interpreter works alone. It’s also less likely to involve technology that has set up and functioning risks.

Consecutive interpretation gives the interpreter more time for precision in the target language. Ambiguous phrases, convoluted constructions and complicated verb tenses are more likely to be rendered correctly. That’s especially the case when an interpreter needs to work at the edge of their existing knowledge.

Simultaneous Interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting can be envisioned as interpreting with a target audience. The prototype is the interpretation at the United Nations. Press conferences and any sort of meeting for a live TV audience may use simultaneous interpreting.

Typically, the objective of simultaneous interpreting is to deliver fast interpretation to decision-makers or the audience. Without quick conversion, a news or information broadcast must produce alternate versions of the event or extend the time to relay the information in other languages.

ALTA Languages

ALTA Languages is an enterprise-level language service company. Whether you’re switching linguistic providers, hiring language professionals for the first time or want to become an interpreter, we have solutions for bridging many types of language gaps and continued language training.

ALTA’s Interpretation Services

ALTA delivers high-quality interpretation for every type of communication. From in-person interpreting to telephonic (OPI) to video or conference interpretation, our interpreters provide stellar service in the full gamut of communication environments.

The Interpreter Career path

If you’re ready to turn your language skills into a financially and personally rewarding career, our training solutions are seldom paralleled. We offer at-home interpreter training and continuing education. Enjoy advancing on an innovative path for the globalized future using your linguistic knowledge and skills.

ALTA’s Translation Services & Localization Offerings

With fast, complimentary estimates and technology-assisted translations approved by expert translators, ALTA offers the perfect mix of speed, affordability and precision. We have over 2,500 translators operating under an internationally (ISO 9001) certified quality management system.

Our localization services ensure your document, software or website converts seamlessly into a native speaker’s usual experience. When all numbers, data and information comply with their standard perception of information, potential customers convert. Later, further opportunities open in that market. Clients and patients feel secure and confident. Localization also ensures the technical aspects of your software or website convert perfectly.

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