Translators vs. Interpreters

Much has been said about this subject. Several websites, blogs, agencies, etc. have expressed their definitions, explanations and lists of similarities and differences.

Some opinions sound very well founded, clearly coming from professionals in the field. Others seem to have been researched and written by an outsider who needed to submit something to the editor by the end of the day.

And in true human fashion, the general public either does not care or refuses to even know the basic difference:

  • interpreters = oral
  • translators = written

Now, why are there two different names for the profession? After all, if an engineer writes, draws or speaks, the job title is still “engineer”. And the same applies to doctors, plumbers, carpenters, teachers, bank robbers, you name it.

Well, simply put, the main reason is that they are in fact two different professions with different sets of skills, different settings or work environments, different rates, and often performed by different people. Not every translator does interpreting and not every interpreter translates written words. Sometimes, it’s a matter of preference, but it can also be due to their education, skills, place of employment, etc.

Let’s look further…

The setting

A translator usually performs the task of rendering a text from one language into another in a setting where neither the creators of the original text nor the receivers of the translated text are present. This does not mean, however, that there is no time pressure because there may be tight deadlines.

An interpreter, for one, works in an environment in which both the speaker(s) and the audience are present. And the actual time for the task is now! This may vary slightly based on the style (consecutive, bilateral, simultaneous, etc.) but it is always immediate.

Skills and knowledge

Both translators and interpreters need to deeply know both the source language (L1) and the target language (L2). In some cases, a translator’s poorer knowledge of L1 may be compensated by having some extra time. But this obviously compromises efficiency and productivity. And it could also be a good recipe for disaster. Interpreters, however, do not have that extra time, so their knowledge is key.

Both of them should also be knowledgeable of the subject matter in order to convey the appropriate message from L1 into L2. Knowledge of the field will (i) make the task easier and faster by cutting down research time and (ii) guarantee accuracy, idiomaticness and a higher quality.

Needless to say, they both have to be closely familiar with the specific rules of the game; that is, translation and/or interpreting techniques.

On the other hand, translators should be able to type with decent dexterity for the sake of time while interpreters need to have a wide vocabulary so as to respond quickly with the correct equivalents.

As to memory, translators need to develop their long-term memory while interpreters depend on their short-term memory. A translator will have time to research and look up terms but if he/she already knows them, the work is more efficient. Interpreters, again, do not have such time, so research should be done previously and the terms should be part of their learned vocabulary.

For translators, it is very helpful to be computer savvy as they may have to use several programs and applications in their daily job. They should also be able to provide the final result in as many formats as possible to handle a wider variety of clients. Knowledge of CAT tools is also recommended but not strictly necessary.

Interpreters, instead, need to have nerves of steel and leave stage fright behind as they will often be speaking in public and in front of cameras, microphones and the like. Linguistically speaking, interpreters also need to have appropriate oral skills to make sure their message is understood clearly, as well as good listening skills to faithfully grasp the original message. And, preferably, they should have a relatively standard accent in both languages to be understood by a wider range of people.


Service rates are hard to compare because interpreters often get paid by hour while freelance translators get paid by word and agency translators get paid hourly as well. If you look at estimated total numbers it may seem like interpreters get paid more than translators. This is not necessarily an indication of professional distinction but a reflection of the demand and supply. In the United States, for instance, it is very common for interpreters to work only part-time or on a per diem basis, which is why their service rates tend to be higher.


Social recognition depends on countless factors such as:

  • industry or field (medical, legal, scientific, literary)
  • style (journalistic, conversational, formal)
  • medium (radio, online, graphic arts, magazines, books)
  • qualifications
  • location (office, conference hall, hospital, courtroom, agency, home office)

Generally speaking, both interpreters and translators enjoy a similar level of recognition (social or otherwise), which is often lower than expected because it is sadly an underrated job. But, after all, not many are here for the recognition. In fact, many translators appreciate the certain degree of anonymity and peace of mind that comes with working alone in the privacy of their home offices at late hours of the night.


One thing is common for both professions. No matter if they are translators or interpreters, whether they freelance or work for a company, whether they get the remuneration and recognition they expect or want, no matter where exactly they work, one thing is sure: They love their job!

Translators/interpreters are among the most highly dedicated professionals you will engage with. And this is due to many reasons… (1) they appreciate yielding a good result, (2) they enjoy doing a service that allows people to communicate beyond international and intercultural barriers, (3) they appreciate the fact that the result is tangible in a relatively short time, and (4) they are passionate about language(s).

And last but not least, they are relatively fun at parties because they will not be talking about work all the time like teachers, physicians and social workers do.

Wouldn’t you agree?


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