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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

Differences and Connections Between Translation and Interpretation

When I first entered the language service industry back in 2014, there seemed to be a general consensus that you are either a translator or an interpreter: these are two kinds of jobs that require different skills, and cross-pollination was more or less considered a rarity. I was also subscribed to this line of either/or thinking and chose to focus on translation for the majority of my career.

But in 2022, spurred by the encouragement of my interpreter colleagues and my own desire to grow, I began exploring interpretation. This decision unlocked a new world, and I'm thrilled to announce that I'll be starting an Advanced Entry Translation and Interpretation master's program at the prestigious Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in the fall!

This journey has revealed a fascinating discovery: while translation and interpretation have their differences, they are also deeply connected. My experience in translation has significantly benefitted my interpretation skills, and the industry winds seem to be shifting as well, with more colleagues proudly wearing both hats.

Differences between translation and interpretation

Both translation and interpretation are essential in facilitating communication between individuals who speak different languages. However, they differ in terms of the medium they work with and the skills required to excel in each field.

Translation focuses on written content and aims to convert a text, such as a book, article, or legal contract from one language to another while preserving its meaning, style, and nuances. Translators meticulously decode the original message and recreate it in a different language, considering the cultural context and the target audience. Due to its nature and use case, translation allows for more time and careful consideration. Translators can research specific terms, consult references, and ensure the accuracy and completeness of their translations. The luxury of time makes it possible for meticulous refinement.

Interpretation, on the other hand, involves conveying the meaning of spoken language in real-time (simultaneous interpretation) or immediately after a verbal segment is complete (consecutive interpretation). It is often used in situations like conferences, business meetings, courtrooms, or healthcare settings. Apart from excellent language skills and cultural understanding to ensure accurate communication between parties, it also requires quick thinking, swift cognitive processing, and strategic coping methods due to time restraints.

Connections between translation and interpretation

While translators and interpreters serve different purposes and work with different tools, their skill sets are intricately linked.

Both interpreters and translators require a high level of language proficiency and cultural knowledge. It's essential for interpreters and translators to go beyond mere language conversion and truly understand the nuances and subtleties of communication. They need to continuously refine their skills, stay updated with linguistic changes, and understand the specific requirements of their clients or industries.

Beyond language proficiency, both translators and interpreters need to be adept at navigating different subject matters. Whether it's legal documents, medical reports, or complex technical manuals, ongoing research and specialized knowledge are essential to ensure accurate and effective communication. It's also important to be honest about one's limits and not take on industries that we're not qualified to serve.

The skills honed in one mode demonstrably enhance the other. When translating, we meticulously refine our word choices and develop a strong "muscle memory" for precise equivalents. This helps us to find the most fitting counterpart on the fly when interpreting. Furthermore, grappling with complex sentence structures in written translations strengthens an interpreter's ability to quickly grasp and process spoken language with intricate grammar.

The benefits flow the other way as well. Interpreters are masters of deverbalization, the art of focusing on the message and tone rather than word-for-word conversion. This allows them to effectively capture the intended meaning in the written text and convey it naturally in the target language, avoiding the pitfalls of overly literal translations that might sound awkward or inauthentic. They can focus on crafting a rendition that reads smoothly and idiomatically, resonating with the target audience.

The symbiotic relationship extends to terminology resources as well. Both translators and interpreters are professional linguists who meticulously build glossaries specific to their subject areas from animal welfare to international relations and from climate change to AI. These glossaries, in turn, become invaluable resources when they tackle similar topics in a different mode. 


Translation and interpretation are not isolated or mutually exclusive. They share a symbiotic relationship where one side of the skills constantly enriches and refines the other. While some may choose to specialize in translation or interpretation based on their preferences and skill sets, the ability to operate in both spheres has its unique advantage. This "double threat" approach fosters a holistic development of language proficiency, from the nuanced understanding of written language to the dynamic world of spoken communication. 


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