A business needs to communicate across cultures as it grows, and utilizing a translator or interpreter is often part of that process.

But what’s the difference between a translator and an interpreter? Knowing the difference is essential. The field that you’re in and the work that you do will determine which one of those professionals you need.

We’ll help you with a few of the finer details and get you on your way to hiring the right person for the job.


Interpreter vs. translator: what’s the difference?

The two professionals have similar skills, but the nature of the work is different. A translator rarely ever does the work of an interpreter, and vice versa. There’s a very specific skill set needed for each job.

Translators should have a body of work that shows their writing ability. Interpreters should know how to speak fluently and listen well. Both should also know a good deal about the culture of the language that they are speaking.


The first difference is the medium that both professions work in. Interpreters have to instantly transform language, cultural references, and tone into a different language than speak it to another person in the same breath.

They work in person and deal with people face-to-face, or they can utilize telephonic interpretation services. This requires a great depth of knowledge and a unique ability to listen and speak clearly. While an interpreter is relaying information to one person, they are listening to what a different person is saying in the source language.

This ability is dependent on linguistic skills and does not come easily. Interpreters must grasp what is happening in the conversation in order to convey tone and meaning accurately. The thing is, tone and meaning are expressed differently across cultures. This adds another level to interpretation.

Understanding culture

Understanding two cultures is a requirement for both translators and interpreters. The importance lies in the fact that many of the intonations and inflections that we take for granted as natural aren’t natural at all. We learn how to communicate our ideas in ways that are specific to our culture.

An interpreter internalizes these differences in order to give the fastest interpretations. Any mistake or misinterpretation could lead to serious consequences.

When you need an interpreter

If you work in a field that requires you to talk to people who speak another language face-to-face or over the phone, you should always find an interpreter. This helps in all areas of business negotiations, professional encounters, and interactions with clients.

One thing to keep in mind is that while many people have a lot of experience interpreting, they aren’t always the best fit. While it is essential to have a grasp of the duties and skills needed for the job, it’s also important that the person has a deep knowledge of the subject matter.

Whatever the subject, it is very important that your interpreter understands it. A person can’t explain something thoroughly if they don’t have a grasp of the underlying information.


A translator’s skill set is different because they focus more on documents and content than conversations. Reading and writing have more value to the translator.

There is a larger margin for error linguistically because translators don’t have to make decisions in real-time. They can use dictionaries and other tools that will help them fine-tune their work. They have to show a propensity for skilled writing, though.

The translator must be skilled at writing in both languages. This is a difficult thing to find because many people can speak well but aren’t able to write professionally. Formal training in writing should be a requirement in your job posting.

You should hire two translators–both translating into their native language. People are able to write and relate concepts far better when the language they are using is native to them. Hiring two people will improve the quality of your documents and avoid big mistakes in translation.

You should also make sure that the person you hire is skilled in the medium that you work in. Translators work in written language, but what is the end document going to look like? Are you creating formal memos, websites, books, articles, pamphlets, or something else?

Each one of those things requires a different skill set. There are theories of visual rhetoric that need to be addressed uniquely with different documents. The person also needs to understand the tone of the work and write the piece in a suitable voice. The last thing you want is for your work to seem insensitive because the tone of a document didn’t come outright.

These are both extremely difficult positions, so it is essential to have a grasp of what to look for when hiring a translator or interpreter.


Final thoughts

There’s a lot to learn when it comes to the roles of interpreter and translator. There is also a lot of information out there that can help you understand what to look for or what to do to keep up.

Language is always changing along with culture. Half of being an interpreter is being up to date on how people communicate, and the same goes for translators. That should be taken seriously, just as learning the language should. There are always new methods and ideas floating around the translation community to help make translation professionals more effective. Thinking together allows us to grow and develop faster than we would alone.

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