What’s the Difference Between Translation and Interpretation?

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The Difference Between Translation and Interpretation

Many people confuse translation and interpretation since both enable communication between different languages.

Why should you know the difference?

Because it will point you in the right direction when shopping for language services (and possibly get you extra points on trivia night).

Do I Need an Interpreter or a Translator?

Whether you need an interpreter or a translator depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Mainly, an interpreter works with live, spoken words, and a translator works with written text.

Interpretation is spoken.
Translation is written.

Here’s an example:

An English speaking doctor at a hospital receives a patient who only understands Spanish. The doctor needs to explain a procedure to the patient and also answer any questions they may have.

An interpreter is needed in the room so both the patient and doctor can ask questions and give responses.

When the medical results are available, a translator gets to work. After the documents are translated and reviewed, the hospital sends them to the Spanish speaking patient.

Although both of these professionals are foreign language experts, they possess different skill sets.

The Differences Between Translation and Interpretation

Diving a little deeper, it’s the delivery, methods, abilities, and tools that separate translation from interpretation.


Like in the hospital scenario above, translators and interpreters work in different settings.

A translator typically works from their office or workstation and is available during regular business hours. They receive text in various formats like Word documents, PDFs, or HTML files and have a deadline to complete them. Their job is to research, translate, review the text, and deliver it formatted for the new language.

An interpreter rarely works from an office and often needs to travel to where they are required. Their job is to translate in real-time, listening to what one speaker says and relaying it into the language of the listener. They then communicate questions or comments from the listener back into the original speaker’s language.


A translator’s primary goal is accuracy, consistency, and equivalence. They focus on grammar, terminology, and cultural relevance to effectively convey a text’s message to the reader.

An interpreter’s primary goal is fluidity, clarity, and efficiency. They must have a good memory and be able to adjust to the style and speed of the speakers and filter out unnecessary details.

Tools and Resources

Since a translator’s central device is their computer, they have a variety of tools at their disposal. CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools, terminology bases, glossaries, and dictionaries enable them to produce translations that are grammatically correct, precise, and consistent. They have time to research highly technical terminology or reflect on marketing content to ensure resonance with a foreign audience.

On the other hand, an interpreter’s focus is on the speakers present; the tools they use enhance listening, speaking, and notetaking—often using a microphone, pen and paper, and headphones in a booth. There’s no time for research since the interpreter needs to keep pace with the speaker.


Translations are priced per word, hour, or page. Some translation companies offer discounts to their return clients since they can leverage previous work to create new translations of similar text.

Interpretation is almost always charged per minute, hour, half-day or day. Travel fees are often included in the pricing as well.

Translation and Interpretation Services

After deciding whether you need a translator or interpreter, you’ll want to make sure you have the right person for your job.

Since translators and interpreters specialize in their niche areas, assigning an expert for your industry and format will significantly enhance the quality of work.

For example, technical, medical, and marketing materials should be handled by technical, medical, and marketing translators, respectively. If you need software localization, you’d want a translator familiar with translating UI content.

For interpreting work, you’ll need an expert in either consecutive, simultaneous, or whisper interpreting, depending on your arrangement. You should also verify the experience of your interpreter, whether it be in conference, judicial, travel, medical, or other settings. There is also a high demand for humanitarian interpreting

Professional language service providers that specialize in translation, interpretation, or both can ensure the best fit for your job and add the extra value of quality and project management.

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