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What's the Difference Between Translation and Interpretation Services?

Translation is for text, interpretation is for speech.

The fundamental difference between translation and interpretation services is the medium that they focus on. Translation primarily changes text from one language to another, whereas interpretation changes speech into another language.

Translation and interpretation are just two of a wide range of language services that you can call upon to help you communicate. Translation, interpretation, localization and transcreation can all benefit your business, but they have subtle differences in usage and focus. If you haven’t used these services before, it can be confusing trying to figure out which one you need.

To help you understand your needs, this article will explain the difference between translation and interpretation services. We’ll unpack the differing focuses of each language service, when you might need them, and the skills you should look for when hiring a translator or interpreter.

Let’s start by looking at interpretation.

What is Interpretation?

Interpretation is the act of converting spoken words from one language to another in real-time, usually performed by a professional interpreter. Interpretation can take place in person, by telephone via over-the-phone interpretation (OPI), or through a video call.

You may need interpretation services any time you’re working with partners, clients, or customers who do not share your native language. Professional interpretation services can include on-site interpretation, over-the-phone interpretation, and real-time digital chat capabilities.

What Skills Does an Interpreter Need?

Interpreters need excellent skills in both the source language and the target language. If they can’t follow the context of the conversation, they can’t paraphrase it in a way that preserves its meaning. That’s why professional interpreters must be fluent in both languages.

Since they work with the spoken word, interpreters are orally fluent. They know the spoken customs, regionalisms, and colloquialisms of each language. However, they don’t attempt to interpret what is said word for word. Trying to directly convert a sentence into another language in real time would prevent the original meaning from being transmitted clearly and confuse both parties. Instead, paraphrasing lies at the heart of interpretation. Interpreters listen to the spoken words, understand their meaning, and transform them into new words in the target language.

Subject matter expertise is also an important part of an interpreter’s arsenal. Familiarity with a given subject is beneficial during highly technical discussions, especially when parties might use different words or acronyms for certain terms.

Types of Interpretation

There are two main styles of interpretation which interpreters use, depending on the circumstances and needs of the two parties involved. They can be described as follows.

Simultaneous Interpretation

Simultaneous interpretation requires intense concentration. Delivery comes at almost the same time as the speaker utters words in the source language. The time delay is minimal, so the interpreter must listen to, convert, and speak the new words almost immediately.

Simultaneous interpretation works best when interpreters pair up, letting one person take a vocal and mental breather every few minutes.

Consecutive Interpretation

In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter speaks after the first person completes a sentence. This type of interpretation, with a more noticeable time delay, works well in scenarios where time isn’t as limited, such as informal conversations.

What is Translation?

Translation is the process of changing a written text from one language into another. A successful translation effectively communicates the message and meaning of the original text. A professional translator converts written texts into a new language. This can include anything from brochures and signs to websites and books.

Translators are typically experts in certain subjects or industries. This specialization gives them enough background knowledge to capture the meaning of a given text and translate it most accurately into the target language.

What Skills Does a Translator Need?

Like interpreters, translators also require linguistic excellence in both the source and target language. They must also understand both the idioms and colloquialisms of the source language they need to translate. Typically, translators are native speakers of the target language.

Translators work with dictionaries and glossaries to help them translate the material that’s written in the source language. Although translating usually comes with a deadline, it doesn’t have the real-time urgency that characterizes interpreting. The relative release of one pressure comes with the addition of another: translation customers typically have a higher expectation of accuracy.

In addition to their linguistic expertise, translators often specialize in a specific area, such as medical translation or translation of legal documents. The nuanced understanding and industry insights they gain in these fields help to improve the quality and accuracy of their translations.

Beyond Translation

When you want your message to really resonate, you need to go beyond translation—you need to consider localization and transcreation.

Localization and transcreation both take a deeper dive into a region’s linguistic and cultural differences. Localization, a process that includes translation, focuses on transforming content so it appeals to a target market in a particular location. When brands localize content, they take their original message and make it locally relevant for global users.

Similarly, transcreation recreates content with an emphasis on avoiding cultural references that may not be understood by the target market. With transcreation services, brands can confidently retain the spirit, voice, and emotion of their messaging in new markets.

When to Use Interpretation or Translation

When choosing between interpretation and translation, it helps to focus on the main reason you’re looking for language services. This is particularly true in situations where both services might be appropriate, such as a meeting that includes a discussion and a written report.

Let’s use the example of a meeting to help make the decision clearer. If the discussion is the focus of the meeting and the written portion is a summary handout, it’s best to use interpreting services. However, if the written report is the focus of the meeting, you’ll need a translated document that will help all attendees understand the important discussion points.

While many situations could benefit from both translation and interpretation services, it’s not always necessary to use both. A focus on your overarching goal can help you make the correct decision and prevent communication from becoming a barrier.

Get Started with Translation and Interpretation

Translation and interpretation look very different in practice. Interpretation handles spoken language in real-time, whereas translation services are primarily text-based. Interpretation is an intense, swift process, while translation is carefully crafted. Both language services aim to retain and effectively communicate a message, but have different constraints.

Both translation and interpretation can facilitate better communication, help you build connections and advance your business. However, it’s important to use the right service if you want to effectively overcome the language barrier. If you still need help deciding which service best suits your project, you could also reach out to a language services provider (LSP) to help you create a solution that works for you.

As one of the world’s foremost LSPs, Lionbridge can use over two decades of experience in translation and interpretation to make your content transformation project a success. Reach out today for a conversation and take the first step towards a deeper connection with your international customers, followers and employees.

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