Are you the translator?

Have you ever asked this question to one of those people in the aquarium-like boxes (better known as an interpreter booth) in the back of the room and noticed that they cringe? Maybe one of them mumbled ‘interpreter’ at you in response or rolled their eyes. Or maybe you’ve asked a translator to simultaneously interpret your keynote speaker’s presentation (they know the languages through and through, right?), and found that they sprinted off, leaving you coughing in a cloud of dust? This article will help you understand why.

Translation and interpretation are not the same thing

Even if both of these activities involve taking a message in language A, and rendering it in language B, there is a difference in the way in which this is done, and in the techniques, tools and delivery time involved. One characteristic, in particular, will help you distinguish a translator from an interpreter in the blink of an eye: translators translate a written text into the target language, whilst interpreters render spoken language in the target language. Bear this in mind, and you’ll never find yourself in the type of awkward situation described above. But there is more. Read on if you want to truly appreciate the difference between both professions.


Translators do not only have a good knowledge of their working languages and the related cultures, they are also very good writers. They like to take the time to accurately translate every nuance in the source text, and use a wide array of dictionaries and reference materials to make sure that their translation is a perfect reflection of the original. This does not mean that they translate word for word, though. They love languages and have the patience and endurance to embark on difficult search to find the phrase, expression or word that perfectly embodies the original one.

Since they deal with all words written, they adore discovering special word-gems like ‘soliloquy’ and take pride in knowing the latest and quirkiest spelling rules. Very often, freelance translators work from home, but this does not mean that they live secluded like medieval scribes! The internet has allowed them to interconnect and create virtual translator communities, that organise networking events and have a variety of online forums to exchange advice on vocabulary or just have a good laugh at existing mistranslations.

In terms of tools, a translator’s basic equipment includes a desktop or a laptop, on and offline dictionaries and glossaries, and ever more often, Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT) tools. These CAT tools help them to handle larger volumes in shorter turnaround times and allow them to build translation memories that contribute to an improved coherence of the vocabulary used. Some translators specialise in specific fields of expertise, like literature, or technical and medical documents, but there are also many ‘generalists’. Presence works solely with native translators who translate into their mother tongue, as this guarantees the quality of the written translations. Even if many translators seem to enjoy posting pictures of their pets molesting computers, it would be dangerous to generalise, as the translating community is as diverse and heterogeneous as it is large.


Interpreters are an altogether different breed. There are all kinds of interpreters like conference interpreters, medical interpreters, … . But besides that, there are also different interpreting techniques such as simultaneous interpretation, consecutive interpretation, whispered interpretation, liaison interpretation and online interpretation.

Let’s have a look at for example conference interpreters, they interpret simultaneously and work from a booth (yes, box or aquarium is not the official name). Interpreters obviously also have a thorough knowledge of their mother tongue and their working languages, but they have to render messages in another language in real-time, i.e. while the speaker is talking. This means that, unlike translators, they have very limited time to consult reference material and glossaries. Interpreters actually listen to the speakers, interpret, speak and listen to themselves, all at the same time. It is because this activity requires so much concentration, that interpreters work in pairs and switch every 20-30 minutes. They can’t risk getting stuck on a word that they don’t know or that is distorted beyond recognition by a speaker with a thick accent, so they usually paraphrase while they find the translation they need.

Before the pandemic, interpreters usually travelled to the venues where their interpretation is needed as it is very important for them to see the presentations, and to interpret the (non-)verbal communications of their speaker and audience. They also just like live interaction and travelling. But after the COVID outbreak, technology has evolved rapidly and gave remote interpreting a real boost.  With RSI (Remote Simultaneous Interpretation), interpreters don’t need to be physically present at the venue, they follow the meeting virtually (from home or a remote hub) via an RSI platform and deliver interpretation simultaneously. Every participant will receive a live video & audio feed from the speakers in their own language.

So what do we find in an interpreter’s professional toolkit? Interpreters usually take their (extra light) laptop or tablet wherever they go, because that is where they store the presentations, glossaries and reference material that they have prepared for the assignment. They also use these devices to consult online glossaries, or to surf around the web during their half-hour breaks. Even if The Presence Group's AV partners equip the interpreting booths with headsets for the interpreters to work with, many professionals prefer to bring their own ‘ear candy’ to be certain that the sound quality is just the way they want it to be. Much like translators, interpreters are language geeks, so they enjoy language jokes and translation faux-pas.

Translators and interpreters share their love of languages. Finding the best way to render a source text or speech in another language is something that they take pride in. Each in their own way, either patiently digging until the perfect word surfaces, or snatching the best available phrase in the midst of the real-time race, they build bridges between writers and readers or speakers and their audiences. Quite some interpreters complement their interpreting activities with written translations, so when you call them translators, you may not even be that wrong or they may not be too offended. But what they’ll appreciate the most, is that you take interest in what they do, see them for what they are, and call them by the name that fits their activity best.

Would you like to know more about translation and interpretation or do you require translation or interpretation services? Our global database of thoroughly screened native language professionals will cover whatever language you need to have! Contact our office in your preferred language for more information or a price offer.

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