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Interpretation vs. Translation: A Deeper Dive

What’s the difference between interpretation and translation? “That’s an easy question,” you might say. While many know that interpretation is for spoken and sign languages and translation is for written works, there are many more intricate differences between the two. This blog post will explore some of these critical differences.

Direction and fluency

In interpretation and translation, the official terminology for the language of the original spoken or written message is called the Source language. The language to which the message is being interpreted or translated is called the target language.

Properly trained interpreters, including CyraCom medical interpreters, have the ability to interpret back and forth between both languages. Translators on the other hand, rarely translate both directions: they usually translate from their learned language into their native language.[1]

Real time versus delayed

Translation takes a lot more time to deliver than interpretation because what is translated has to convey the exact tones, meanings, and nuances as the original text. In their work, translators usually have access to glossaries, dictionaries, and even experts to make sure the meaning is translated exactly as the author intended.[2]  According to the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), “a translator may translate 2000-3000 words a day, while an interpreter has to keep up with around 150 words a minute.”[3]

There are many ways to interpret, but the most commonly used forms of interpretation are:

  1. Simultaneous – “providing the target-language message at roughly the same time as the source-language message is being produced.”
  2. Consecutive – “waiting until the speaker has finished before beginning the interpretation.”[4]

In simultaneous interpretation, interpreters do not have time to look up words or phrases and must rely on their own prior knowledge. While simultaneous interpreters strive to retain the exact tone and meaning as the source message, they may not have time to include nuances or render absolutely perfect interpretations. At CyraCom, our medical interpreters use consecutive interpreting which allows them to consistently and accurately convey the tone, meaning and nuances of the original message.  Our interpreters’ high accuracy rate is in part due to rigorous note-taking, listening and memory skills. Using consecutive interpretation, our interpreters are also able to look up terms, request repetitions and verify critical information to ensure accuracy.

Translating and Interpreting

While there are many similar aspects to the work done by interpreters and translators, as you can see, the qualifications and skills needed are completely different and interpreters and translators do not swap jobs easily. To read more about the skills needed by an interpreter, go to our blog here.


[1] “What is the difference between translation and interpreting? http://theatacompass.org/2013/06/20/what-is-the-difference-between-translation-and-interpreting/

[2]  “On Translation vs. Interpretation Repost)” Sarah “Alys” Lindholm http://sal.detailwoman.net/on-translation-vs-interpretation-repost/

[4]“Interpreting Is Interpreting — Or Is It?” by Dr. Holly Mikkelson. http://www.acebo.com/papers/interp1.htm
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