When Do I Need a Translator and When Do I Need an Interpreter?

There are big differences between an interpreter and a translator, even though both are involved in converting one language to another. Professional translators and interpreters are both generally trained and may have certification or accreditation to a translator’s or interpreter’s organisation. They tend to specialise in their trade as well, so you may not just be looking for either a translator or an interpreter but a certain type of translator or interpreter.

What’s the Difference?

The main difference between a translator and an interpreter is that the translator deals primarily with printed or written material while the interpreter deals with the spoken word.

Translator and Interpreter

For example, say you work in a busy hospital as a doctor. Let’s say you have to deal with a person who is obviously sick, but cannot speak English (assuming that is the main language where you live). If you are lucky, there may be an interpreter available in the hospital who can act as an intermediary and allows you to communicate with that patient. You can now see just how important it is for the hospital to have an interpreter who not only is able to understand and communicate in both English and another language, but has a good understanding of medical terminology.

Keeping the hospital example to find a reason why a translator may be useful in that environment, if there are quite a large number of people who use that hospital who speak languages other than English, there are likely to be many notices where information is available in these languages. They could be signs on walls or doors, they could be leaflets or booklets, and they could be instructions to take home after treatment or surgery or to accompany medication. These would all be available because of the work of translators. Medical translators are complementary to medical interpreters, just used in a different context.
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Do you Want to Train as an Interpreter or a Translator?

There is a rapidly growing demand for both interpreters and translators. The rise in demand follows the growth in international communication and trade. If you are fluent in more than one language and are wondering which career you should pursue, then it is worth learning something about the differences in the sort of work that translators and interpreters do. Generally, people become a translator or interpreters and not both.

Translators have more time on their hands when they have translation tasks. It takes longer to accurately translate a piece of text. The work is less face to face. In fact, some translators who work on a freelance basis may not have any direct contact with their clients at all. They may receive documents for translation sent to them as attachments by email and then they send the translated documents back against when completed.

Interpreters, on the other hand, tend to have more direct contact with their clients or in their work, e.g. the hospital interpreters in the example given above. Interpreters must be quick to pick up what is being said so that they can relay the message in the language required. Interpreters are often used at international conferences or meetings. In some countries, there may be more than one official language, so government and non-government events are often held in multiple languages. All European Union meetings involve the use of many different interpreters who enable everyone attending to understand everyone else, whatever the language used by anyone speaker.

Which particular career to choose comes down partly to the personality you have and your own preferences as well as the number of possible jobs there are in that field or prospects for setting up as a freelancer.