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What’s the difference between translation and interpreting?

Here’s a question – if you were looking to convert an English brochure into Arabic, would you need a translator or an interpreter?

Many people think that translators and interpreters do the same thing, but they’re really different roles entirely.

Simply put, a translator works with written texts, while an interpreter works orally with spoken dialogue, speeches, etc.

Understanding the differences goes a long way in forming a good idea of what to expect when you are engaging language services.

Plus, you’ll get brownie points with translators and interpreters for calling them by the right name.

So, in answer to the question: you’d hire a translator!


Translators and interpreters, apples and oranges

Comparing translation and interpreting is like comparing writing and speaking – basically, it’s apples and oranges.

Translators and interpreters are both vessels for multicultural communication, performing very different functions.

Take health translations about COVID-19, for example.

Organisations may hire translators, either independently or through language service providers (LSPs) like Ethnolink.

Translators work behind the scenes to produce health advice and information that can then be uploaded as a webpage, published as a fact sheet, or even shared as a video.

Meanwhile, an interpreter may accompany a COVID-positive patient to a doctor’s appointment. Or they may appear on the news, interpreting government announcements in real-time.

So, you see, translators and interpreters share the same goal – transferring meaning and information across languages – but they contribute to that goal in different ways.

And that means that they face different challenges and use their unique skillsets to manage different environments and requirements.


Translation vs interpreting: a day in the life

Generally, a translator works from the comfort of their own home, office, or workspace, tapping away on a keyboard all day (or night!).

They can work anywhere they like, and they can go at their own pace, too – as long as they have an internet connection and no deadlines snapping at their heels.

(Though, admittedly, tight deadlines happen more often than not.)

In contrast, an interpreter may work from a specialised booth at a conference, in person, or even remotely, over the phone or a video call – it depends on the job.

Most of the time, they’re required to listen and interpret back and forth between at least two languages, with little to no breaks in between.

After they finish one job, they’ll move on quickly to the next. It requires them to be able to adapt to different situations and environments rapidly.

Interpreters move like chameleons, from one high-pressure situation to another.


Translation vs interpreting: research and preparation

Not everyone who is bilingual can be a translator or interpreter.

It’s not enough to be able to speak a language. Language professionals also need to have a repertoire of cultural knowledge behind them and the relevant vocabulary (colloquial and technical).

Which makes research a very important part of the job – especially for interpreters.

This is because translators have more time to work, so if they run into anything unfamiliar, they can look it up – or select the ‘Ask a Friend’ option.

They can familiarise themselves with the topic as they go along, so they don’t necessarily have to do much preparation in advance.

Now, imagine if an interpreter took out his phone during a conversation to look up a concept.

Awkward, right?

Not to mention unprofessional.

Interpreters need to have the relevant vocabulary, ready to go.

This may involve a lot of memorisation and research before an interpreting booking, or keeping a complete set of notes at hand to easily refer to.

But it’s critical that they have researched and prepared thoroughly before the job even begins.


Translation vs interpreting: soft skills

Translators work to deadlines, which means that time management skills are essential.

They also need to have a very keen eye for detail, picking out the slightest discrepancy that can cause the meaning of a text to shift.

Even if it is something as small as a comma.

You don’t want your text to carry connotations that your target audience finds just the wrong side of quirky.

And, of course, strong writing skills are a must for translators – just like interpreters need strong verbal communication skills.

When they’re on the job, an interpreter juggles a lot of different things at once.

Listening, converting what is being said into another language, remembering what was said for more than two seconds, speaking…

… And maybe warding off some background thoughts like, I need to catch the bus in twenty minutes to get to my next booking, or I wonder if my breath smells.

It’s a lot of multitasking for the brain to do, isn’t it?

Which is why interpreters need to have at least bilingual proficiency in their languages.

Switching between languages has to come as easy as breathing, because their brain is already occupied doing ten other things at once.

And even then, the most experienced interpreters are hard-pressed to produce perfect interpretations on-the-spot, every time.

In short, interpreting is kind of like the language services industry’s version of extreme sports!


Translation vs interpreting: distanced, or up close and personal?

What’s the difference between reading about family violence and witnessing it?

What about reading a death certificate and telling someone that they have a terminal illness?

Translators and interpreters both deal with heavy topics.

But interpreters are certainly confronted with such topics more directly.

They may be called to go into a doctor’s office, where they will be relaying a terminal diagnosis to a patient.

Or they may be asked to go to the scene of an emergency, where a victim of family violence is describing what happened to them.

Translators, on the other hand, don’t work in live settings. They could be asked to translate a video recording of similar situations – but, the gravity is not the same.

Because of this, interpreters may experience a greater emotional toll.

That can be something to keep in mind – and you can help your interpreter a lot by making sure to provide them with a detailed brief.

This way, they know what they’re going into, and they have time to prepare themselves by not only conducting research but preparing themselves mentally for the situation.

You need to provide support to your interpreter’s mental and emotional wellbeing, in order to ensure that they can perform their job to the best of their ability.

Because at the end of the day, interpreters are humans too.


Write for translation, and speak for interpreting

We’ve talked a lot about the differences between translation and interpreting.

Now, let’s talk about how you can help enhance multicultural communications by working with your translator and/or interpreter.

One of the best things you can do is to make sure that your translator/interpreter has plenty of information to work with.

Context is key in communication — without it, translators and interpreters can’t perform to the best of their ability.

There are other things you can do, too.

In translation, writing plainly can help translators grasp the core of your message so that they can communicate it in another language as directly as possible.

By writing in Plain English and reducing your use of acronyms, you go a long way in ensuring that translators know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it.

And just like you can write for translation, you can speak for interpreting, too!

For interpreters, things like speech characteristics and their working environment can make a big difference.

For example, you should always speak as though the interpreter isn’t there.

Translators and interpreters are both trained to be ‘invisible’ to smooth communication between languages as much as possible.

Saying things like, ask him what he thinks actually makes the interpreter’s job harder.

A slow and measured speech rate is also a lot easier for an interpreter to work with.

They may look calm and professional, but rapid-fire words are enough to make even the most experienced interpreter sweat bullets.

In short, it boils down to communicating clearly and plainly.



To sum it up, here are the key differences between translation and interpreting…

Summary table of translation vs interpreting. Translation: Medium - Written, Location - Anywhere, Pace - At their own pace, to dead lines, Skills for success - detail-oriented and thorough. Interpreting: Medium - oral, Location - remotely or in-person, Pace - fast-paced and high-pressure, Skills for success - quick-thinking and adept at multitasking


  • Work with written texts
  • Don’t have to be equally proficient in their languages
  • Work from anywhere
  • Work at their own pace to deadlines
  • Very detail-oriented and thorough


  • Work orally with spoken dialogue, speeches, etc.
  • Need bilingual proficiency
  • Work in booths or in-person
  • Work in live, high-pressure settings
  • Quick-thinking multitasker

Other key takeaways are our tips for working with your translator and/or interpreter to enhance your multilingual and multicultural communications.

Remember: clarity and context are key in communication.

Help yourself and your translator/interpreter out by writing for translation, speaking for interpreting and providing detailed briefs.

Now, the next time you’re looking to engage translation or interpreting services, you’ll know exactly what to expect, and what your translator and/or interpreter needs from you to perform their jobs successfully!


Ethnolink is a premier language services provider specialising in translation services and multicultural communication.

Have something you would like translated, but aren’t sure where to start?

Reach out to our Multicultural Communications Adviser, Rachael Coulthard ( for a free discovery session!

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