The Difference between Translation and Interpretation

The Difference between Translation and Interpretation

Written  by Adam Wooten ,  May 2010

If you are an author, reporter, or journalist of some type, you have probably been referred to this page because someone wants to politely explain to you the difference between translation and interpretation. There is no need to take offense. This is just an effort to educate many people who have previously been unaware. Not everyone outside the language industry knows the difference, but here is a basic principle you need to understand if you want to maintain credibility and appear as if you know what you are talking about.

Translation is Written & Interpretation is Spoken

It is really very simple. Translation is written. Interpretation is spoken. Translators work with written language. Interpreters deal with spoken language. That’s it! There is nothing more to it!

Still, many reporters and journalists get this wrong on a daily basis. I will not cite any examples here because I am not looking to embarrass anyone, but examples can be found easily with a quick Google search.

Authoritative References on the Difference

Trust me. You can take my word for it since I’ve worked as both a translator and an interpreter, and I’ve managed both translators and interpreters. If that is not enough to make you believe me, then check out a few of these authoritative references:

Although interpretation and translation have much in common, the practice of each profession differs in the same way that written language differs from spoken… Interpreters must be good public speakers who are adept at grasping meaning and solving complex linguistic problems quickly, whereas translators must be able to conduct thorough and meticulous research and produce accurate, camera-ready documents while adhering to tight deadlines.
Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation, & Language Education
Monterey Institute of International Studies

Translation refers to the rendering of written materials into a different language…. Interpretation refers to the relaying of spoken words, such as lectures or conversations, into another language….
Center for Language Study
Yale University

Translators work with the written word…. Interpreters work with the spoken word….
American Translators Association

Interpreters deal with spoken words, translators with written words.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Even Wikipedia recognizes that many people attempt to use the word “translation” to refer to both; however, “interpretation and translation are not synonymous.”

Maintain Journalistic Credibility when Reporting on Language Services

I hope by now you get it and you think I’m beating a dead horse. If you find this repetitive and are almost ready to click away from this page, that is a good thing. Unfortunately, after all the evidence above has been presented, there are still some incredibly stubborn people who bury their heads in the sand and insist the two words are interchangeable. Sometimes these people will become very defensive and attack the person correcting them. I once had a reporter tell me he would not pay any attention to my suggestion because I had omitted a serial comma from my email. Please don’t be one of those people. It will only embarrass you.

Imagine how embarrassing it would be for a reporter to confuse “libel” with “slander,” when there is such a clear difference: libel is written, and slander is spoken. Or imagine how silly it would sound if a reporter referred to how a pair of political candidates demonstrated what great writers they were as they spoke impromptu in a recent debate. Clearly speakers speak and writers write, and it is just plain wrong to think that the words for speaking and writing are interchangeable.

  • Writing vs  Speaking
  • Authors vs  Orators
  • Translation vs Interpretation
  • Translators vs Interpreters

Journalists and reporters can maintain or lose credibility depending on how well they convey their understanding of the differences between the following: U.S. House and Senate; libel and slander; civil court and criminal court; speaking and writing; translation and interpretation; and more…

The Nicole Kidman Example

For one final example, remember Hollywood’s 2005 film starring Nicole Kidman. Hollywood does not always get it right, but it did in this particular case. The film is correctly called The Interpreter, NOT The Translator, because Kidman’s character works as a U.N. interpreter and deals with the spoken word, NOT the written word.

A simple illustration was created by interpreters Johanna Parker and Sam Pinilla while they were pursuing graduate studies in translation and interpretation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. It was distributed to moviegoers in the Language Capital of the World when the The Interpreter was released in 2005. In a very simplified “see-Jane-run” style with stick figures, the illustration read: “Why isn’t this movie called˜The Translator?’ See Nicole. See Nicole listen. See Nicole interpret. See Lydia. See Lydia read. See Lydia translate. Got it?”

Thank You for Writing about Translation & Interpretation

So, after kicking this dead horse a few more times, I hope you are convinced enough to use the words translation and interpretation correctly in the future. No one was insulting you by directing you to this link. This is merely an effort to educate journalists and reporters. Greater understanding will benefit everyone, and anyone reporting on this topic will be taken much more seriously if he or she uses these terms correctly.

Thank you for taking the time to write about or report on translation or interpretation. And thank you for taking the time to educate yourself about these two professions and their differences.