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What’s the difference between interpretation and translation?

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7 min

Over the 7 years of serving clients from over 110 countries in need of multilingual events at Interactio, we’ve learned that people frequently confuse two terms - interpretation and translation. 

And don’t be skeptical here, we suspect what you might be thinking right now. Another boring interpretation vs. translation article, why should I even care? 

Well, the words carry meaning. 

When we use the words precisely, we can communicate effectively both with service providers and attendees. We can do what’s best for our audience. We can save the time and resources wasted on miscommunication. 

Today we’ll tackle the two most frequently received questions: 

  1. What’s the difference between interpretation and translation? 
  2. What’s better, interpretation or translation?

The etymology of interpretation and translation

Interpretation and translation are two different terms that people sometimes use interchangeably. However, the way these words were born is different. 

Translatio is a Latin word that means "carrying across" or "bringing across", as if you’re bringing a text from one language to another. Oxford Dictionary defines translation as a “process of changing something that is written or spoken into another language.” Since the origin and the modern definition are quite similar, people generally don’t have a hard time understanding the term.

On the other hand, interpretation is a vague term with a meaning that can change depending on the context. As a broad term, it defines a particular way in which we explain or understand something. This comes from a Latin word interpretati - “to explain, expound, or understand.” 

However, the meaning that language service providers intend to deliver is quite different and closely connected to another Latin word, interpres - an agent or translator. 

Interpretation is not just an explanation. It is the art of paraphrasing. ISO precisely combines etymology with a modern meaning to define interpretation as the “rendering of spoken or signed information from a source language to a target language in oral or signed form, conveying both the register and meaning of the source language content.”

Key differences between interpretation and translation

After understanding the etymology of these words, there are some key differences that you can observe in the industry:

1. Interpretation is less time-consuming. Regardless of the interpretation mode, interpreters deliver the message in real-time, with slight pauses (in consecutive interpretation) or minimal delays (in simultaneous interpretation). 

Learn more about interpretation modes in 7 types of interpretation you have to know 

While interpreting experts usually deliver interpretation live, which saves the time on delivery, they dedicate hours before the event to vigilant preparation - something that is often left unnoticed by the public. 

2. Most commonly, interpretation is speech-based, and translation is text-based. For example, Language Scientific explains that call centers and customer service could use interpretation, but they still have written information that needs translation for their customers. 

Interpreters help people who need to deliver their messages orally. They sometimes name it as oral translation. Translators, however, help people who need to deliver their text-based materials, such as documents or manuals, into another language.

3. Translation is convenient in niche situations, user manuals, instructions, and places where every word matters. Translators have an opportunity to access dictionaries and do research as they go through the document, while interpreters have to rely on their preliminary notes, adjusting to the speech with minimum delays.

4. Interpretation is appealing in conferences, business meetings, and governmental sessions. You can also use it successfully in press conferences, educational meetings, and even church services. Don’t be surprised with the variety of the use-cases. Professional interpreters can successfully deliver the message in virtually any context.  

5. Interpretation relies on non-verbal cues that are absent in traditional translation. Whether the interpreter interprets a live or pre-recorded speech, they have an opportunity to recognize the speaker’s nonverbal cues. 

Think of how voice tone and face mimics can change the perception of the speech in multicultural meetings.

Interpreters can grasp individuals’ jokes, metaphors, intonation, thus building closer rapport and nurturing a more intimate connection between the speaker and the audience, who’d otherwise be separated by a language barrier.

If you decide that your event needs interpretation, head to our next blog post - My event needs interpretation. What should I do?

So what does Interactio do?

Interactio is a multilingual meeting solution, providing remote simultaneous interpretation services. 

Remote simultaneous interpreters interpret the speech in their head and deliver it in the preferred language instantly, with a minimum delay, in a matter of milliseconds. Remote simultaneous interpretation requires immediate comprehension as the original speech continues with no interruptions. 

Every meeting is different, and remote simultaneous interpreting is just one of the interpretation modes to get your message across. 

You can find out if remote simultaneous interpreting is a match for your event in our Complete guide to remote simultaneous interpretation.

No translation at all?

No, we do not translate written text at the moment. However, if you need help preparing communication materials in different languages for your multilingual event, we’ll be happy to assist, turning to our large network of professional linguists. 

Bottom line: What’s better interpretation or translation?

There’s no right answer! Though quite different in execution, both interpretation and translation follow the same goal - to help people understand the meaning of the words in their preferred language. Instead of picking what’s better, we kindly suggest you think about what could be a better fit for your unique case. 

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Published on

August 19, 2021

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