The difference between interpretation and translation

I have worked as a translator for well over a decade and much has changed in the profession during this time. But one thing that has remained constant is confusion amongst the general public between the role of a translator and that of an interpreter. 

Many of my colleagues will be familiar with the scenario of telling people that they are a translator and being met with awe at their ability to simultaneously listen to somebody speaking in one language and immediately relay the meaning in another language.

In actual fact, this is an awe shared by translators, for it is a skill that we (generally speaking) do not possess. Although interpretation and translation both deal with conveying a message from one language to another, they are actually totally different disciplines, requiring different skills and personality traits.

In this article, we shall explain what interpretation is, when it is needed and how it differs from our own expertise here at LEaF Translations – translation. We will then take a deeper look at translation, before considering the skillsets people require to be successful in these professions.

What is interpretation?

In simple terms, interpretation means to orally convey the meaning of one spoken language into another language. The key element that distinguishes interpretation from translation is that it applies to spoken language rather than written language. It also happens in real time – interpretation is immediate and on the spot. Interpreters have no access to external resources, only their own expertise, memory and reflexes. 

There are two different types of interpretation: 

Simultaneous interpretation

This is where an interpreter sits in a separate soundproof booth with an earpiece and immediately relays what the speaker is saying in the relevant language. It happens instantaneously and allows event attendees from different countries to all follow what is being said more or less in real time.
As simultaneous interpretation requires a high level of concentration, interpreters tend to work in pairs and each cover short periods of up to 20 to 30 minutes at a time.

The rapid nature of simultaneous interpreting also means that the message conveyed by the interpreter may come across as awkward or stilted. This is because they often have to start paraphrasing what is being said before the speaker has concluded their sentence.

Consecutive interpretation

Consecutive interpretation is where the interpreter is in the same room or location as the speaker. They wait until the speaker has finished their sentence and then convey the meaning in the relevant language.

The delay means that consecutive interpreting takes far longer than simultaneous interpreting (the interpreter and speaker essentially take it in turns), and as the interpreter is in the same location as the speaker, the message can only be conveyed in one other language.
It is far cheaper, however, as no specialist equipment is required, and the message communicated by the interpreter tends to sound more natural as the interpreter has a little longer to formulate what they wish to say.

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When do you need an interpreter?

As interpretation happens in real time, interpreters are required for live scenarios where the people attending speak different languages – either to each other or to the speaker or speakers. These scenarios may include business meetings, appointments, court hearings, conferences, international political events and live television.

Whether you require simultaneous or consecutive interpretation will depend on the nature of the event. Simultaneous interpreting is commonly used for large events with attendees from numerous countries, whereas consecutive interpreting is more common for business meetings, appointments and low-key events.

What is translation?

Unlike interpretation, translation deals with the written word. Once again, it is about conveying the message from one language into another, but in the case of translation, this happens over a period of time, rather than instantly.

The lack of immediacy means that, unlike interpreters, translators can access extensive external resources. These may include software, such as CAT tools (computer-assisted translation), as well as translation memories and glossaries. Translators can also utilise dictionaries and online resources, and can refer to reference texts and previous translations. 

This wealth of available resources, coupled with the time that translators have to grapple with the source text, means that translations are far more accurate than the messages conveyed by interpreters. 

For interpreters, the aim is to convey the meaning of what is being said, so the speaker can be understood by everyone present. For translators, the aim is to produce a text that accurately conveys the meaning of the source text AND that reads like it has been written in the target language. Whereas interpreters are almost expected to utter slightly strange phrases, make minor mistakes and even omit certain words and pieces of information, translators are tasked with ensuring that their translations are totally accurate and well-written and that they do not feature any omissions.

When do you need a translator?

Professional translators help businesses to expand and reach out to new international audiences. In today’s global world, they play a key role in providing online content that speaks directly to the market in question. 

They are experts in adapting cultural references and finding equivalent idioms and expressions, and in writing high-quality texts with the target audience in mind.

Qualified translators (translators who have passed an assessment and are qualified members of a professional body, such as the Institute of Translation & Interpreting in the UK) or sworn translators also perform an important role by providing certified translations of official documents – such as passports, marriage certificates, other legal documents and academic certificates – for specific purposes, like passport and visa applications, university applications and more.

The key differences between interpreting and translating

Although both translation and interpretation deal with language, they are very different disciplines. Interpretation focuses on the spoken word and is delivered in real time, either in person, over the phone or via video link. Meanwhile, translation deals with the written word and focuses on accuracy and quality over speed.

Both interpretation and translation involve adapting culturally specific references for the target audience – from idioms to colloquial expressions and references that simply don’t exist in the target language.

Translators and interpreters need to consider the tone of the text or the spoken word and seek to replicate it in their messaging – be it oral or written. In addition, interpreters also need to bear inflection and verbal cues in mind. For translators, only the text itself matters and their focus is on creating a well-written equivalent text for the target market.

These differences between the two disciplines mean that translators and interpreters need different skillsets and often have different personality traits too.

Standing on a stage in front of a large audience is very different to sitting in front of a computer at home and, although some interpreters offer translation services as well, the two jobs tend to appeal to different personalities.

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Top skills & personality traits required by interpreters

Interpreters need to speak (at least) two languages fluently. Interpreters often work in both directions – i.e. they interpret from language A to language B and from language B to language A. They require excellent listening skills in both languages and excellent communication skills. They need to be able to understand what is being said in one language and convey it succinctly in another language.

As interpretation happens in real time, interpreters cannot access online dictionaries, glossaries or other useful resources – they have to rely on their own expertise and vocabulary in both languages, and their own memory skills.

Interpreting can be a high-pressure job with a lot riding on conveying the message accurately. Interpreters need to be good at working under pressure and enjoy public speaking. In some scenarios, there will be a lot of eyes on the interpreter.

Top skills & personality traits required by translators

Unlike interpreters, translators almost never work in front of an audience. As such, translation tends to appeal more to those with an introverted nature. Translators regularly work as freelancers and spend long hours by themselves in front of their computers. Some people love the independence and solitude this brings, but it is certainly not for everyone.

Just like interpreters, translators need to be fluent in at least two languages. However, in order to be able to translate to a high standard, one of the most important traits of a translator is their ability to write excellent-quality texts in their native language.

Translations need to be flawless texts in their own right – as such translators tend to only translate into their mother tongue. In fact, many translation companies only work with translators who are native speakers of the target language (LEaF Translations is one such company). It is very hard to write with 100% accuracy in a second language. 

Besides these writing skills, translators need solid reading comprehension in their source language (their second language), as well as expertise in the subject matter. The latter point explains why many translators specialise in specific fields, such as marketing, medicine, science, sustainability, tourism, finance, etc. While translators have access to a wealth of resources online, being familiar with the subject matter is still of great benefit.


Hopefully you are now more familiar with the two related but very different disciplines of translation and interpreting. Here at LEaF Translations, we specialise in the written word. We love nothing more than crafting excellent translations in a wide range of languages, but put us on a stage and ask us to interpret what someone is saying for an audience and we would be stumped.

With that in mind, if you need any help with interpreting, we would recommend you check out the Institute of Translation & Interpreting’s directory of interpreters here. If, on the other hand, you need some assistance conveying your written messaging to different audiences, get in touch. We would love to find out more about your translation project.

Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.