What Are the Differences Between Interpreting & Translation?

In order to grow, organizations need to communicate with their customer audiences in their native language, whether that is to attract global audiences or a local population in the language they prefer to speak. This may involve interpretation of your content, translation, or both. As closely related linguistic fields, the two processes are often cited interchangeably—but each has a distinct role to play in certain situations. How do you know which is best?

At first glance, the difference between translation and interpretation lies in each service’s medium: interpreters translate spoken language orally, while translators translate the written word. The two professions also have similarities, such as deep cultural understanding, expert knowledge of the subject matter, and ability to communicate clearly. However, recognizing what the differences are between an interpreter and a translator is extremely useful when choosing between the two.


Interpreting isn’t word-for-word translation of a spoken message. Professional interpreters transpose the source language (language to be translated) within context, preserving its original meaning but rephrasing idioms, colloquialisms, and other culturally-specific references in ways the target audience can understand. Not only that, but they have to deliver their message instantly—either in unison with (simultaneous) or immediately after (consecutive) the original speech—with no help from scripts, dictionaries, or other reference materials.

Interpreters work on projects involving live translation: Conferences and meetings, medical appointments, legal proceedings, live TV coverage, sign language are some common examples.


Perhaps the biggest difference between interpreters and translators is that most translators use computer-aided tools in their work. As the translator goes through each section of text, they may refer to glossaries and style guides to ensure quality. Finally, they’ll pass the translation to another linguist to proofread, then convert the final document back into its original format ensuring the closest possible match.

Translators work on any information in written form: Websites, print, and video subtitles as common examples.

What are the key differences between interpreting and translation?

1. Delivery: As mentioned above, a key difference between translation and interpretation is in the delivery timing. Interpretation takes place on the spot. The process can occur in person, over the phone, or via video. Translation, on the other hand, can happen long after the source text is created.

2. Intangibles: Making metaphors, analogies, and idioms resonate with the target audience is a challenge that both interpreters and translators face. On top of this, interpreters must capture tone, inflections, voice quality, and other unique elements of the spoken word and then convey these verbal cues to the audience.

Now that you know what the difference is between an interpreter and a translator, you’re ready to explore each in line with more specific translation requirements: Do you need to translate highly technical content, for instance, or content covering a niche topic? Although interpreters and translators broadly share the same respective competencies, a language service provider can correlate your needs to professionals with skills and knowledge perfect for each project.