Interpreting and translation – what’s the difference?

We are often asked about the difference between interpreting and translation. Although the difference may seem obvious to us, this is a fair question as both translators and interpreters work with languages and the process of transferring meanings from one language to another.

Three people in a project meeting

In purely concrete terms, however, translators and interpreters work with different aspects of problem-solving: translators work with written languages, and interpreters work with spoken languages. Their work has many similarities, but the fundamental difference is that a translator must produce a written text that correctly gives the reader the same information as the original document while also meeting the grammatical and readability requirements of the new language. An interpreter provides an oral version of the same information expressed by the speaker in the original language.


Translators generally receive their material in file format (e.g. a Word document), type in the translated text and deliver a file back. Translators use specific glossaries and other relevant reference materials in their work. They can also use a translation tool, which may be a suitable way of ensuring that the right terminology is used or that repeated phrases are translated consistently throughout the text.

It is important that translators are good writers and are able to express themselves well when writing in the target language. Although many translators work with more than one language combination, they therefore only work in one language direction. In other words, they translate from other languages into their own native language.

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Interpreters work directly with their customers. An interpreter can attend meetings or conferences in person, or can participate by telephone or video. Examples of common interpreting situations include conferences, where a team of interpreters works from an interpreter booth to provide interpretation direct to the participants’ wireless headsets, during doctor’s visits where the doctor and the patient do not speak the same language, or during study visits where an interpreter uses whispered interpreting to convey what is being said to one or more people.

Interpreters therefore need to be able to interpret in both directions in their language combination. The tools they use are dictionaries or documentation on the subject, and sometimes also a computer. However, the most important thing for an interpreter is to prepare well by reading up thoroughly on the relevant documentation in advance. After all, the actual process of interpreting takes place in real time and there are only limited opportunities for checking things.

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The same goal

Neither interpreting nor translation involves simply replacing a word in one language with the corresponding word in another language. Obviously, a good translation or interpretation always reflects intentions, word choices, style and nuances. Both interpreters and translators must therefore be well versed in all the variations of the source language in order to reproduce the content in the best way. This is one thing they have in common. However, the medium is different. Since the two roles require different skills, most professional interpreters and translators choose to deal exclusively with one or the other, although there are some exceptions.

Ultimately, both interpreters and translators work to achieve intercultural and multilingual communication and understanding: interpreters in spoken communication and translators in written communication.

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