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Interpreters versus Translators: How Do They Differ?

If you are an interpreter or translator, keep on reading for answers to cornerstone questions all language professionals should know.

And so the story goes…

Immersion of translation is tightly connected to religion. The Hebrew Bible translation (3rd century) is believed to be the first fundamental translation (Brief History of Translation: Everything You Need to Know, 2021). One century later, Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin. Since then, it has been widely used in the Roman Catholic Church. The demand for translation continued to increase as more religious groups were introduced.

By the way, did you know that Saint Jerome is a patron of translators and scholars? His feast day—September 30th—is International Translation Day.

Tracing back the birth of interpretation as a professional activity is a tougher nut to crack since historical records are limited. On top of this, the dominance of the written texts didn’t allow for distinguishing interpretation as a separate field of expertise. Interpreters were considered support personnel or public servants, aiding their noble rulers to communicate with neighboring countries, sign trading contracts, and consummate military treaties.

Ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks used interpreters in all the spheres of their lives. Archeological discoveries in the rock tombs of the Princes of Elephantine (300 BC) depict interpreters as having two heads. The Princes were bilingual, oversaw dragomans (professional interpreters in the Middle East), and led military expeditions in Sudan and Nubia (A Brief History of Interpretation and Translation, 2020).

In the modern era, interpreting formed as a profession after the First World War; to be more precise, during the Paris Peace Conference from 1919-1920 (3 Moments Where Conference Interpreting Changed History).

It was the grand debut for the English language as prior to this event it had not been used on the same official level as French— the most widely utilized European language of diplomatic relations in the XVIII century.

The Paris Peace Conference was not only the turning point in stabilizing international relations of the European countries in the post-war world, but also the place where main principles and guidelines of consecutive interpreting were introduced. It led to the birth of interpreting as a profession.

The origin of sign language interpreting also goes back to Paris, France. One of the first schools for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing was established in the French capital in 1755 by Charles-Michel de l’Epee; he created the first sign language system called “methodical signs” (History of Sign Language Interpreting, 2023). It later evolved into French Sign Language (LSF) and served as a base for many other sign languages.

As noted in the history article, the parents of American Sign Language (ASL) were Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc who founded the first school for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. American Sign Language can be considered “an offspring” to its French ancestor.

Who is who in the world of language professionals:

Let’s start with clearly defining both professions.

A Translator is a language professional who renders written text from the source language (SL) into the target language (TL). Working languages are called a language pair; for example, if a translator renders the text from English to Spanish, he works with an English-Spanish language pair.

Translators usually have a certain period of time to complete the translation; they can use dictionaries, CAT tools (Computer-Assisted Translation), and collaborate on how to translate different expressions with fellow translators.

A good translator should have excellent attention to detail and a full command of grammar in both languages. They should also know the basic rules of translation (how to render terminology, idioms, proper nouns, etc.) and be eager to learn new words, new concepts, and use innovative technologies (for instance, AI).

One main trait that sets apart a good translator from a superstar one is “the feeling of the written text”. There can be a dozen ways to translate a phrase but an experienced translator will pick the best equivalent because only with that particular word or word combination the sentence “sounds right and conveys the meaning of the message embodied in the SL accurately”.

An Interpreter is a language professional who renders an oral or signed message from the SL to the TL in real time.

Unlike translators, interpreters don’t have access to “cheat sheets” or dictionaries because they produce interpretation on demand.

Aside from an extensive vocabulary of terms from a particular industry, there are other core skills which a qualified interpreter must have. They are:

  • quick reaction (when switching between languages)
  • reliable and trained short-term memory
  • good note taking skills
  • excellent sound or signed articulation
  • “an open ear” for the clients’ accents and “an open eye” for their body language and facial expressions
  • good communication skills
  • resilience to working under constant stress
  • exceptional problem-solving skills

There are two major modes of interpreting: Consecutive Interpreting (CI) and Simultaneous Interpreting (SI).

When working in the consecutive mode, an interpreter listens first and then renders the oral or signed message in short increments (1-3 sentences). If a speaker tends to talk nonstop, a consecutive interpreter may ask the speaker to pause while they catch up, or to repeat a certain part of their communication.

When working in the simultaneous mode, an interpreter must render the message almost at the same time as the speaker produces it (in fact, if the delay between a speaker and an interpreter is more than 10 seconds, the whole message might become distorted and not conveyed properly). Simultaneous interpreting requires the highest level of professional mastery. SI is often used at the United Nations and European Parliament meetings, political venues, press conferences, courtrooms, presentations, or lectures. It usually requires special equipment.

How do I get certified?

Having decided whether to become a translator or an interpreter, it is time to think ahead and make yourself stand out as a language professional.

If you are in the language field, you know that in our profession every day is a school day!

Attend webinars, study glossaries, and read nonfiction professional literature to learn more and stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the world of translation and interpretation.

Becoming a member of a professional organization is also a great idea. You will have a chance to become a part of your professional community, get access to free study resources, and network with colleagues.

If you choose the translation career path, get certified by the American Translation Association (ATA).

ATA certification is one of the industry’s most respected credentials for translators. It is also the only widely recognized measure of competence for translation in the U.S.

Decide to become a medical interpreter?

The two main certification bodies in the US are:

Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI)


National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI)

Court interpreters are certified by the judicial body of the state they are planning to work in. A court interpreter certification process usually requires a candidate to participate in an orientation workshop and pass the written examination and oral proficiency exam (consisting of three parts: simultaneous, consecutive, and sight interpretations).

Candidates for sign language interpreters must be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) (the only recognized national certification) or the Texas Board for Evaluation of Interpreters (BEI), an exam leased by Texas but offered in multiple states across the U.S. Some individual states also require a provisional license (temporary and restricted) or full license (with national certification required) to provide interpreting services. Educational interpreters may be required to take the Educational Interpreter Proficiency Assessment (EIPA) and receive a certain score to work in school districts.

Being a translator or an interpreter is a privilege. The ability to connect people, cultures and countries by facilitating written, oral or signed languages are the reasons why people seek language-related careers.

It’s the right choice for highly motivated and responsible individuals who want to make a difference in the lives of others and are ready for lifelong learning spins.

Anthony Burgess, a British writer and linguist, once said: “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” Bridging the communication gap between people is more than a profession, it is a rewarding life mission. Are you up to the challenge?

List of References

  1. Brief History of Translation: Everything You Need to Know. Language Network Resources. (2021, September 30).
  2. A Brief History of Interpretation and Translation. Translorial. (2020, November 3).
  3. International Translation Day 30 September. United Nations. (n.d.)
  4. 3 Moments Where Conference Interpreting Changed History. Language Connections. (n.d.)
  5. History of Sign Language Interpreting. (2023, February 3).
  6. Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT). (2023, October 11). In Wikipedia.
  7. Guide to ATA Certification. American Translators Association. (n.d.)
  8. Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters. (n.d.)
  9. National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters. (n.d.)
  10. Interpreter Certification, The United Judicial System of Pennsylvania. (n.d.)
  11. Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. (n.d.)
  12. Board for Evaluation of Interpreters Certification Program. Texas Health and Human Services. (n.d.)
  13. Educational Interpreter Proficiency Assessment (EIPA). Boys Town. (n.d.)
  14. Language Interpretation. (2023, December 26). In Wikipedia.