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Translators vs Interpreters

Interpreters differ from translators in a number of important ways but they also share with them certain characteristics and skills:
© Cardiff University

Interpreters differ from translators in a number of important ways but they also share with them certain characteristics and skills:

Translators Translators & interpreters Interpreters
Have plenty of time to research the text Both act as cultural and linguistic mediators and influencers Communicate in real time
Translate from their passive languages (B, C) to their active language (A) (with some exceptions) Transfer messages between languages Must have active language knowledge
Are able to render the text in the target language in the clearest and most accurate way possible Have knowledge of languages Work both from A>B and A>C and vice versa (B>A, C>A)
Have excellent research skills Have knowledge of relevant techniques to transfer the message between languages Have strong cultural knowledge
Specialize in the language of different fields (law, science, arts, health) Have researched their topic/text Have strong listening skills, good communication skills and quick reactions
Have a strong command of communication technologies Have excellent short-term memory and the intellectual capacity to transfer idioms, colloquialisms & culture-specific elements on the spot
Can adjust to the type of interpretation required (simultaneous, semi-simultaneous or consecutive)**
Are able to adjust the register of each utterance**
Are able to match the effect of the “voice” of the person being interpreted**

[Many thanks to former MOOC learner, Trevor Jenkins, for alerting us to these three important aspects that emerge from the context of sign-language interpreting but are arguably applicable to many other contexts too]

Interpreter Types

Interpreters are generally divided into three main types, depending on the techniques used for the interpretation. In simultaneous interpreting, very common in conferences and large formal events, interpreters interpret in real time, listening to the speaker via headsets and taking turns in simultaneously delivering the translation via microphones into the headsets of their audience.


Chuchotage is a particular type of simultaneous interpreting where the interpreter sits next to their target clients whispering the translation to them.

Consecutive Interpreting

In consecutive interpreting, the interpreter takes careful notes of what the speaker says, using a special type of shorthand, and delivers the full text in one go only after the speaker has finished. A common type of consecutive interpreter is the Public Service Interpreter, such as police or healthcare interpreters.

Liaison Interpreting

The third, and least formal, type of interpreting is liaison or ad-hoc interpreting and it is generally employed for business meetings and more informal interactions. Here speakers usually pause after a few sentences so that the interpreter (who usually does not take notes) can deliver the translation.

In some countries, such as most of continental Europe, there is a fourth category: that of court or sworn interpreters. These are interpreters who have taken an oath in court and are certified to carry out official work for the judiciary system, the police and other authorities.

Translator and Interpreter Training

Most countries offer specialised training for both professional translators and interpreters. In the UK, alongside undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in translation, the main professional qualifications available are the Institute of Translation and Interpreting’s MITI (Qualified Member Status) for translators and the DPSI (Diploma in Public Service Interpreting), and the Chartered Institute of Linguists’ DipTrans (Diploma in Translation).

© Cardiff University
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