What’s the difference between translation and interpretation?

Over the last few months I’ve had a couple of job requests that turned out to be for interpreters. If people ask me about my job, often they assume that I’m an interpreter when I say that I’m a translator. Who can blame them for not knowing the difference, when the terms are used interchangeably all the time, especially in films or on TV.

Translators and Interpreters are professional linguists. Both jobs require an in-depth knowledge of their working languages and cultures, but different skill sets are involved.

What’s the difference?

Plainly, translation is writing, and interpretation is speaking. Interpreters work on the spot to orally communicate one language to another, a translator does it in writing.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the main skill requirements for each job.


  • Work quickly on the spot
  • Must have good listening skills and the ability to understand and reconvey idioms/jokes into another language
  • Have the ability to adjust the tone of their language to adapt to the setting (formal/informal etc.)

There are loads of different types of interpreting.

Simultaneous is when interpreters listen to a speech and interpret what the speaker is saying into a different language or sign at the same time. Consecutive interpreters deliver their speech after each sentence or so – normally the original speaker will adjust their pace to allow for this. Whispered interpreters work discretely at close range with one or two listeners in a room. Liaison interpreters ping pong between two languages to help the speakers converse freely.

Interpretation is a forward-facing job, so confidence is important. It’s a different lifestyle. It can be done over the phone or via video call, but interpretation jobs more often involve travelling, sometimes at the very last minute. It’s a varied and exciting job, involving lots of different people and places. Although the work is very much ‘on the spot’, professionals may have had to do prep work beforehand, to understand the company they are working for.

Interpreters can sometimes charge per hour, per half day, or per full day, plus travel, preparation time and accommodation costs.

I’ve seen a lot of interpreters working in the news recently, and I’m in absolute awe of them and their ability to think so fast on the spot. It takes real skill to do that!


  • Are good at writing, and use this ability to reproduce the same message and style of the source text into their native language
  • Are incredibly accurate, as nothing in the source text should be missing from the translation. Whilst interpreters are accurate, sometimes when they are interpreting very fast speech, the most important thing is to get the key message across
  • Work with CAT tools or other translation tools. Being tech-savvy is a must. There’s a responsibility to keep client documents safe on your system, so security is important
  • Should only translate into their native language, unless working in a rare language pair
  • Have to do a fair bit of research to make sure that the translation is accurate and uses the correct terminology. We can’t know everything, but it’s our duty to find out

Most translators work from home, so it can be a solitary position. The good news is that places like LinkedIn and professional associations are a great way of connecting with colleagues. Freelance translation is quite a flexible career, making it ideal if you need to work around other commitments.

We rarely get to meet clients or colleagues in person or speak to them on the phone. The correspondence is normally done via email, although I have had a few initial video calls before, when onboarding.

Translators normally charge a rate per word, or per hour, and this rate normally depends on the complexity of the source text. From experience, I can bash some translations straight out, others have me scratching my head for much longer. Editing and Proofreading is like a box of chocolates, you never know what kind of translation you’re going to get. That’s why an hourly rate is normally applied.

If you’re a French – English interpreter, please connect with me so that I have some names to pass on when I get requests! Otherwise, my first ports of call for interpreters would be the National Register of Public Service Interpreters or the ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting) directory.

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