Did you know there’s a difference between translating and interpreting? It’s true. Each service is appropriate for different situations and each requires a different set of skills, training, and linguistic knowledge. For this reason, few people can successfully do both professionally.

The easiest way to understand the difference is that translation involves rendering written content presented in one language (the source language) into another language (the target language) and interpreting involves doing the same with spoken content. However, a more in-depth look at translation and interpreting reveals there are significant differences beyond the medium of delivery.

What is Translation?

Translation is a broad term used to describe any number of language services that involve communicating the meaning of a written text in one language into a different language. At DTS, our translation services include:

  • Medical editing
  • Technical translations
  • Desktop publishing and localization
  • Medical and clinical translations
  • Certified medical and pharmaceutical translations
  • Medical and clinical back translations

Here linguistic and cultural skills are crucial, but above all, good translators must have the ability to write well. They’re often specialists in a particular field and extremely detail-oriented. Skilled translators pay close attention not only to the meaning of the text, but also to the source content’s style and tone, as well as grammatical structure. All of these pieces must work together to create an accurate translation.

Most translators also use computer-aided tools in their work. This means that they must be skilled at converting source content into a file type that’s easy to work with, applying a translation memory (TM) to the text to automatically translate anything the tool has translated before, and filling in any gaps. As a translator works on each section of text, she refers to any previous glossaries and style guides to ensure consistency.

When choosing the right translation company, keep in mind that even bilingual individuals can rarely express themselves equally well in both languages. For this reason, it’s important to insist that the translator only translate into her native language and that she works on documents in her area of subject matter expertise.

What is Interpreting?

Interpreting is an oral form of translation. At DTS, we offer on-demand telephone interpretation for live translation including:

  • Conferences and meetings
  • Medical appointments
  • Healthcare communications
  • Banking
  • Customer service

You may have never really stopped to think much about it, but interpretation isn’t a word-for-word translation. If this were the case, the result would make little sense because sentences in one language are often constructed in an entirely different way in another language.

On the contrary, interpreting is all about paraphrasing. This means that interpreters need to first transpose the source language within context, preserving its original meaning while rephrasing idioms, colloquialisms, and other culturally-specific references in ways the target audience will understand. In other words, an interpreter’s job is to change words into meaning and then to change meaning back into words of a different language.

Unlike translators, interpreters may be called upon to act as diplomatic mediators in certain situations and often need skills related to being good public speakers. They are required to communicate in unison with (simultaneously) or immediately after (consecutively) the original speech with no help from scripts, glossaries, style guides, or other reference materials. An interpreter’s only resources are experience, a good memory, and quick thinking.

When choosing a company to provide interpreting services, expert knowledge of the subject matter is just as important as interpreting experience. Interpreters must also have incredible listening abilities.

Not All Languages have a Direct Correlation From Translation to Interpreting

It’s important to realize when looking for language services that not all languages have a direct translation-to-interpreting correlation. While some spoken languages have no written equivalent, for example, American sign language and many indigenous American languages, other dialects share a single written language.

For instance, many mistakenly refer to Chinese as both a particular spoken and written language. However, in China there are at least 200 different spoken dialects (the most common of which being Mandarin and Cantonese) corresponding to one written language (Chinese Simplified) and in Taiwan they use Chinese Traditional as their written language.

You’ll want to research the relevant languages thoroughly and know exactly what you’re looking for when you begin this process. Otherwise, you’ll likely to be disappointed in the result.

Which Service Do I Need?

Now that we’ve explored the major differences between translation and interpreting, here are the main distinctions to consider when deciding which service is best for your project:


  • Medium of Delivery: As mentioned above, the main difference between the two is about the means of delivery. Interpretation takes place on the spot and occurs over the phone or in person. On the other hand, translation can occur long after the original content has been created.
  • Accuracy: There is a bit more leeway when it comes to interpreting. All interpreters aim for perfection, of course, but this is a challenge in a live setting. As a result, some of the original speech may be left out of the target language. When 100% accuracy is a concern—in medical contexts—for example, translation may be the right option.
  • Direction: Because interpreters are required to translate in two directions instantaneously without any reference materials, they must be fluent in both languages. Professional translators, by contrast, work in only one direction. Given this, translators are only required to be fluent in their native tongues.


Examples of Translation Versus Interpreting

What are some specific scenarios where you might need translation versus interpreting? Here are a few examples to help you understand where your project falls:

Example #1:

A pharmaceutical company may hire translators to translate their product inserts from English to Korean, German, and Spanish. However, when patients call the English-speaking customer service center with questions about particular drugs and want to speak to someone in their native languages, interpreters would be used to mediate the conversation.

Example #2:

A medical device manufacturer may hire translation services to translate its instructional manual for a certain medical device from Portuguese into English for a new plant opening in the UK. However, when English-speaking supervisors call suppliers in Brazil to order raw materials, they’ll need to use interpreters to discuss their needs.

Example #3:

A principle investigator running a biotech study in a Korean lab using a clinical protocol written in English, may need a translator to do a clinical back translation (AKA reverse translation). He many run into questions about another related study and need to use an interpreter to communicate with his equivalent working in a lab in California.

Although interpreters and translators share some of the same skills and competencies, your world-class language service provider can help you match your project’s specific needs to professionals who will help you accomplish your goals. We pride ourselves on delivering high quality language services and doing it with respect. It has been a privilege to serve thousands of life sciences clients just like you!

Contact us to discuss your translation or interpreting needs today!

10 Tips For Your Next Translation Project (Video)

10 Tips For Your Next Translation Project (Video)

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