Interpretation or Translation - The Differences Explained

Which is which, same or different?

In all the 25 years CanTalk (Canada) Inc. has been in the business of providing language services, customers continue to confuse the disciplines of interpretation and translation.

Interpreters are more than often referred to as translators. Interpretation is all too commonly referred to as translation. Is there really a difference? And should it matter? Well, it should and does.

A rather crude comparison in language services may be the equivalent of saying a cat is a dog, or a dog is a cat. They both have four legs, are both pets and animals. But how they think and behave in the same situations are very different. However, many of CanTalk’s clients past and present will use these two distinctions – interchangeably. It then becomes a question - about whether to put more effort into educating customers about the difference between interpretation and translation, or should we just let it go. In fact, using translation terms for interpretation skills has now become ubiquitous throughout the breadth of the client base. So what to do?

Here we’ll take the practical route for language services and help the reader understand, and then make their own judgement as to the appropriate definitions.



To the professional interpreter, their expertise focuses on the voice, the oral transcribing of thoughts, phrases and words from one language into another. This requires a very specialized discipline and talent – capturing tone, inflections and many other intricacies of a spoken language. It requires using an individuals’ mental processes in a completely different manner than translation.

Interpretation is real time. It requires an interpreter to communicate thoughts, idioms, sentences, specific cultural references either right after the source language has spoken (consecutive) or at the same time the source language is delivered (simultaneous) into target languages. Primary work involves conferences, conference calls and meetings, television events, training situations, legal and medical involvements with experts, school support, financial transactions, immigration proceedings, emergency support; wherever there is an interaction or reaction to a variety of multicultural exchanges.


For the professional translator, their ability is to take the written word and transcribe it from the source language into a target language. Again, the mental acumen required is distinct and different. One is concentrating on the word, the spelling, syntax, grammar, (and) etc. in both target and source languages in a completely different manner than that of an interpreter. These days translators use computer aided tools for even more accuracy and sophistication in their final product. This can include glossaries, and translation templates, automated translation memories and other forms of aids that all add to the quality quotient.

And when a final version has been translated it again will be reviewed by another linguistic proof reader that is yet another final assurance that the translated text is true to quality and document source integrity. Anywhere there is a written word is fair game for the translator. This can include, websites, all manner of business and technical documents, software and multi-media applications, subtitles, training material and books, instructions and directions and many other forms of the written word.

In summary, both disciplines are incredibly complex mental processes and individuals that make this their profession, are uniquely talented. Both require understanding of cultural nuances and subject matter, deep linguistic capabilities and communication skills. Both foster understanding between diverse groups. That is a higher calling in any language!

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