Translation and interpreting: two different professions

Enlace al español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Someone who asks, “Could you translate what that man is saying?” is understood. But the request is really  to “interpret”.

The famed School of Translators of Toledo, 16th century

The famed School of Translators of Toledo, 16th century

A translator converts the sense of a text from the language in which it’s written or printed, into another language; interpreters do something equivalent, but far from identical, with spoken language.

“Translate” comes from Latin: trans- (across, from one side to the other) and latus (carried); the Spanish (and numerous other languages’) equivalent, traducir, has a different Latin origin using ducere (to guide or lead).

The derivation of “interpret” is quite different: inter (between) and pret (business, negotiation, price), thus, an intermediary. A small but key point: the correct noun for the activity is “interpreting” (“interpretation” has other meanings that can cause confusion).

Translator and interpreter: two distinct professions, and not all practitioners of the one can do the other well. Some differences:

* Translation is usually unidirectional (into the translator’s native language), solitary, primarily intellectual-cognitive, takes much time but is not done in “real time”.

* Interpreting goes in both linguistic directions, is inherently social or public, less consciously cognitive than intuitive, must be done almost instantaneously and in the flow of the spoken language: a kind of performance.

Both are difficult, requiring much knowledge, experience, subtlety, and judgment.

As to the relationship with time, the translator is something like a painter or sculptor, the interpreter like an actor or dancer.

¡Buenas palabras!


Copyright ©2013 by Pablo Julián Davis. All rights reserved. This essay was originally written for the 31 March 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as part of the weekly bilingual column, “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.


About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, ATA Certified Translator (Engl>Span) and Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (EnglSpan), offers world-class Spanish/English language services including translation, interpreting, copywriting, and editing in both languages. His specialties are legal, business, medical, and humanities/education; he has wide experience in other fields as well. Also offered: interactive and transformative cultural-awareness training for companies, non-profits, communities, government agencies, institutions of faith, and other audiences. (See just a small sampling of testimonials from happy and satisfied clients: The ability to move effectively from language to language - which necessarily also means moving between cultures - has likely never been at a greater premium than it is in today's world. That ability is what we mean by Interfluency TM.

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