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The difference between translating and interpreting: An introduction to professional interpreting

Describing the difference between written translation and oral interpretation and the nuances that come with each service

This is part one of Catsup Magazine’s Introduction to Interpreting series. The second article is about the professional interpreter introduction.

Don’t feel bad for not knowing the difference. Most people tend to think the two go hand-in-hand, and that’s because they do! Translating and interpreting are not interchangeable, however. One refers to the act of changing written text from one language into another (translation), and the other refers to the verbal exchange of information (interpretation).

Who can be a translator and who can be an interpreter?

While there are nationally accredited associations, the only thing you really need to seek work and make income as an interpreter or translator is the ability to communicate fluently in at least two languages through the title’s respected manner (ie translators should be able to write or type and interpreters will need the ability to communicate orally.) Following a Code of Ethics and displaying professional etiquette are the backbone to being able to sell yourself and your language capabilities.

Your work will speak for itself and remember, you are your service so always put your best foot forward. A portfolio of well-translated documents should help you find work as a beginner translator; client by client you will slowly grow your portfolio replacing the older documents with better ones. Interpreters and translators aren’t born with fancy certificates so offer yourself as a freelancer or apply to be a bilingual employee* if you feel ready to start your language career. Keep practicing because interpreters and translators are never finished learning!


Translating and interpreting wouldn’t be confused on the large scale that they are if their concepts weren’t so similar. Literal translation doesn’t fly in written documents and just the same, literal interpretation is not acceptable when it comes to idioms, jokes, slang, etc. Both interpreters and translators have to be mindful about their craft taking into consideration social context, language, and project needs.

The languages interpreters and translators use during their services are their working languages. Both interpreting and translating utilize a source language, the one used in the original passage, and the target language, which is the completed message in the second language.

Both translation and interpretation are human services provided by, for, and to benefit other human beings. Neither interpretation nor translation is a perfect science though we can come pretty close to rendering the original message. On the same note, humans are capable of awful things and exposure, direct or not, to those horrendous acts may be triggering for some translators and interpreters.

The good thing is both interpreters and translators are often times contractors meaning they are their own boss and can choose which assignments to take on. Full-time employment is also a possibility for those with language skills as staff interpreters/translators as dual role employees, as well as any other career that states the use of and compensation for language skills. Remember: you are allowed to walk off an assignment at any time if you feel your personal safety is compromised.


Speaking multiple languages is, as corny as it is, a superpower and people should be paid more for their capabilities.



Besides the obvious difference already covered, the work of translators usually does not require another party present. With interpreting, the interpreter is navigating a conversation between at least two people and this is done live, not always in person due to remote tele and video conferencing advances. Translation may suit polyglots (those who speak multiple languages) who enjoy working alone on multiple projects at a time. Interpreting will always involve other humans and may be done in emotionally and physically exhausting places such as the emergency room or a social service visit. Please be aware that translating, while more indirect, may also involve sensitive subjects. There are many interpreters and translators who work in both translating and interpreting roles, and plenty others who specialize in one over the other.


Your tools will be different. Interpreters carry some form of note-taking device such as a pen/cil and paper or a tablet. Modern translating is mostly done through online text exchanges using email, Adobe Creative Suite, and word processing programs. Google Suite or Microsoft Word work just fine though some translators go the whole mile and provide their finished product in the same format received (receiving additional compensation for the extra work). For example, Canva is a great free resource to recreate a client’s brochure. A lot of organizations still use PowerPoint or have not strayed far from Google Slides which is helpful.


Day to day, interpreting is on a stricter schedule as these sessions are usually done by appointment. Translators are usually given a timeline negotiated through their contract so while time management is absolutely necessary for both types of language workers, translators have more control over their daily work flow. Interpreters need to be able to route themselves to their physical appointments and be careful not to overlap assignments which is more tempting to do when working remotely.

One profession is not “easier” than the other, though an individual might find one comes more naturally. Depending on what you are looking for, the world of language accessibility is sure to have something to pair with your language gifts!

So, what do you think? Are you going to seek out your ATA (American Translators Association) or CCHI (Certificate Commission of Healthcare Interpreters) certification? Brush up your resume or offer your voice at tutoring sessions at the local library and you may have a new side gig or career!

Get a glimpse of the professional interpreter’s day-to-day life by checking out The Four Essential Parts of the Interpreter Introduction.

*Bilingual employees are susceptible to providing services without adequate compensation or role boundaries. Advocate for your skills not only for yourself but to cultivate a better work environment for all language professionals.

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