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What is the Difference between a Translator and an Interpreter for a Successful Localization Strategy?

Matthew Patel
Matthew Patel
Posted in Zoom Sep 6 · 7 Sep, 2022
What is the Difference between a Translator and an Interpreter for a Successful Localization Strategy?

Almost every business organization wants to exploit the globalization boom, allowing them to expand their reach to traditionally conservative markets. 

However, successful globalization requires a systematic and comprehensive localization strategy that captures the essence of the target market. Otherwise, business owners and CEOs can kiss goodbye to their dreams of global reach.

Localization requires businesses to consider, study, and analyze the peculiarities of their target market – what makes them unique as people. Successful companies always have a special team for such a purpose. Two of the most significant members of the localization squad are the translator and interpreter. 

Wait, what? Isn’t a translator the same as an interpreter? Although these professionals have nearly identical job descriptions, they have unique attributes that make them more efficient in what they do. 

So, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter? How does this impact a company’s localization strategy? Hold on to your seats as we explore the principal differences between translation and interpretation.

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Getting to Know the Translator

What is the Difference between a Translator and an Interpreter

Answering the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter, requires a closer look at each profession. Let’s start with the translator. 

A translator is someone who converts or transforms written texts from one language to a different language. For example, you’re reading this article in English. You’ll need a translator if you want to make a copy of this post in Spanish, Japanese, Russian, or any other language.

Unfortunately, translation is not as easy as finding the equivalent word in a target language because of unique inter-linguistic differences. For example, the Japanese language has rules that differ from English and Latin, making word—per-word translation impossible.

Sure, it’s possible to translate each word, but there’s a good chance the translated material will be out of context or meaningless. 

And if you’re a customer with the target language, you’ll be confused with the message. You can get angry at the company that provided the material and never buy from them again. 

You’ll lose a customer if you’re the business that provided the erroneous, out-of-context translation. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only client you’ll most likely lose. 

Did you know that three out of ten unhappy customers will go to social media platforms to share their negative experiences? And do you know how many share social media posts to their respective networks? More than half (56.8%) of the world’s population has a social media account, and they’re more likely to share everything they see on their pages.

Is poorly translated material enough to make local customers unhappy? Of course!

Have you ever bought a Chinese appliance or gadget with poorly written instructions? How did you feel? Most customers are disgusted, annoyed, and mad at the company’s lack of professionalism. What if this happened to your product’s reference materials? How would you feel? Would you be embarrassed? Will you still pursue your globalization and localization efforts? 

Determining the answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter, should help you realize the significance of both professions in your localization efforts.

Did you know that almost anyone can be a translator? You should be fine in converting a source language text to a target linguistic material as long as you have an excellent command of both languages. 

For example, Indians and Filipinos are fluent in their respective dialects and English. Hence, even a high school graduate can translate written materials for you.

However, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that professional translation service providers prefer translators with a bachelor’s degree. Hence, a college degree increases your chance of getting a translator job. You can always be a freelance translator if you like. 

Here’s another mind-boggling fact that will help you answer the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter.

A translator doesn’t always have to be human; it can also be a machine. The most glaring example of machine translation is Google Translate. You only need to type the text you want to translate, select the target language, and Google displays the translated material in a fraction of a second.

It’s unwise to think that machine translation is a 21st-century creation. The Arabic cryptographer Al-Kindi developed the world’s first systematic language translation techniques in the ninth century. Unfortunately, it was only in 1629 when Rene Descartes proposed unified symbols for representing ideas in different languages.

It would take three more centuries before Peter Troyanskii introduced a very simple machine for selecting and printing target words from a source language in 1933. 

However, the granddaddy of Google Translate and other modern machine translators is the IBM-Georgetown University fully automatic translation program in 1954. This machine accurately translated at least sixty sentences from Russian to English. Today, we have Google Translate and SYSTRAN.

Unfortunately, the only advantage of machine translators over human translators is convenience and speed. 

These computer programs use neural networks to transform text from one language to another as accurately as possible. Sadly, they cannot capture linguistic idiosyncrasies. It’s not uncommon to have erroneously translated material with machine translation. 

A 2017 Google survey revealed that Google Translate achieved 85% accuracy. Unfortunately, businesses looking to expand globally cannot rely on a machine translator with a 15% error rate.

The answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter, is getting clearer. 

Understanding the Interpreter

We’re now into the second part of the equation to answer the most beguiling question every beginning localization team faces – what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter.

An interpreter isn’t that different from a translator because they still transform a source language into a target language. For example, they must convert English to Russian or Japanese and vice versa. 

Another similarity is that translators and interpreters must extract the source language’s message and convey it meaningfully to the target audience in the intended language. 

So, interpreters and translators are linguists with an exceptional command of at least two languages. Unfortunately, one question remains. What is the difference between a translator and an interpreter? 

Easy! A translator’s source material is always written or readable. On the other hand, an interpreter’s originating resource is verbal or spoken. Unsurprisingly, some people call interpreters “verbal translators.” After all, they only translate spoken words into a different language.

What is the Difference between a Translator and an Interpreter

However, the most significant difference between interpreters and translators is their linguistic proficiency. 

Interpreters must translate the source language in real-time without dictionaries, scripts, machine translators, and other references. Time is never their friend because they must convert and deliver the message on the fly. 

Let’s look at the UN General Assembly as an example. Many leaders and representatives talk to the Assembly in their native tongues. For example, Ugandan, Tanzania, Kenyan, and Rwandan UN Ambassadors might speak in Swahili. 

Unfortunately, not everyone in the UN understands this language. Nevertheless, everyone in the General Assembly seems to nod in agreement. Why and how?

Each UN General Assembly member has a professional interpreter to translate speeches into their native language. It doesn’t matter if the speaker talks in Chinese, Bahasa, Korean, or other languages. Interpreters transform the spoken words into meaningful messages in the language each UN member understands. Hence, there is an interpreter for Chinese to Latvian or Latin and vice versa.

Let’s look at how interpreters can impact your localization efforts and understand the answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter.

Expanding your business to other countries requires localization to the target market. It also involves transactions with regulatory officers and other persons in authority. You will also meet local suppliers and third-party vendors, including marketers and local leaders. Unfortunately, not everyone will speak your language. Although some might understand, communicating will be a hit or miss.

An interpreter can help you smoothen the communication process with the local people. The interpreter conveys your messages in real-time while converting the other person’s ideas into a language you understand. Consider the interpreter as a bridge between you and a local. It would be challenging to have a meeting of the minds if you cannot understand one another.

You might think a translator can do the job. Unfortunately, they can’t. Translators need resources to convert the source language into a target language. The interpreter relies on exceptional memory, extensive experience, and lightning-quick cognitive reflexes to translate spoken messages into meaningful verbal communication. 

People must understand that interpreters do not need to convert the source language into the target linguistic verbatim. Instead, interpreters are exceptional paraphrasers. They must allow the speaker to finish their sentence before the interpreter translates the message.

Hence, interpreters must be subject matter experts. How can they “paraphrase” a message in a source language if they don’t know what they’re talking about? 

Moreover, verbal communication is not the only output of interpreters. Sign language is another clue to deciphering the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter. 

We don’t translate words into body signs that people with hearing difficulties understand. We only interpret spoken ideas in sign language. You might have seen some TV shows with a picture-in-picture image of a sign language interpreter.  

Interpreters often work in courts, law enforcement agencies, healthcare institutions, news organizations, businesses, and other situations requiring real-time translation of one language to another and vice versa.

Principal Differences between Translation and Interpretation

Determining the answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter, couldn’t be more distinct than day and night. Although both processes require linguistic expertise, one focuses more on written materials while the other emphasizes verbal communication. Here’s a rundown of the principal differences between interpretation and translation.

·        Format

How does format impact our answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter? In simple words, translators work with text-based, written, or readable resources or materials. Meanwhile, interpreters manage spoken words in real-time, facilitating effective communication between the speaker and the audience and vice versa.

·        Delivery

Translators have the luxury of time to polish their work. For example, a client provides them with the source material for translation today. They can work on it tomorrow or when the customer needs it, giving them the chance to use reference materials to ensure translation accuracy. Of course, some clients might want the translation sooner. However, there is an elapsed time between the source language material creation and the translated content delivery. 

On the other hand, interpreters must translate the source material in real-time, as in here and now. When someone talks, the interpreter must convert the message into understandable forms, allowing audiences and recipients to appreciate the content. The delivery can be over the phone, video stream, or in person. 

·        Accuracy

Translators must always strive for accuracy to be successful in their work. After all, you don’t want to convey the wrong message to your target audience. Clients expect nothing less than translated material with 100% accuracy. After all, translators have plenty of time to ensure high-quality output. They also have dictionaries, scripts, translation machines, and other resources to guarantee translation accuracy.

Time and availability of linguistic resources are never an interpreter’s best friend. They must rely on their wit and linguistic knowledge to transform spoken words into verbal communication on the fly. Hence, they do not strive for 100% accuracy. However, clients expect interpreters to convey the correct message and facilitate successful communication with their real-time or live audiences.

·        Direction

Here’s another answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter. Interpreters must have an excellent command of two discrete languages – the source and the target – enabling them to translate in both directions. For example, an English-Swahili interpreter must convey the English speaker’s message to the other person in Swahili and deliver the Swahili’s response in English.

On the other hand, translators only need to convert the source language into the target language. For example, they can translate English resources into Chinese materials.

·        Intangibles 

Translators never worry about linguistic and communication peculiarities, such as voice quality, inflections, tone, and other unique attributes of spoken words. Unfortunately, interpreters must capture these elements to convey a message as close to the speaker’s original thought as possible. It’s one of the most significant clues to finding the answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter. 

Role of Translation and Interpretation in Localization

Successful businesses with a global presence understand and appreciate the crucial role translators and interpreters play in localization strategies. After all, we communicate verbally and in writing. 

Localization is not a problem if your company establishes a branch in a country with the same language. For example, an American organization will find it straightforward to localize into the Australian or New Zealand market. Unfortunately, that may not be the case if the same company decides to enter South Korea, Japan, or China. 

The answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter, should provide a clue into a translator and interpreter’s role in localization.

What is the Difference between a Translator and an Interpreter

Global companies need translators to make highly accurate translations to ensure the local market understands everything about the company. Translators manage the linguistic accuracy of all written materials, such as advertisements, flyers, marketing materials, packaging labels, user guides, instruction manuals, and other business resources. They can also work with local website developers to guarantee linguistically accurate content.

Unfortunately, global businesses cannot take translators with them when they meet local authorities, vendors, and other people who speak a different language. Company representatives might have accurately translated business application documents, but they must still talk or converse with receiving agencies. 

Interpreters to the rescue! They can bridge the communication gap between your business and the approving agencies. For example, the city mayor might want to talk with your company about your plans. 

Unfortunately, the local chief executive might not speak your language. An interpreter can convert your message into the language the city official understands. The interpreter can also convey the mayor’s message to you in words you comprehend.

Interpreters are also crucial when transacting with local suppliers, third-party vendors, and other supply chain members. Some of them might speak your language, but most will not. A professional interpreter makes communicating with these essential business elements more effective and efficient, ensuring your localization strategy starts in the right direction.

Final Thoughts

The answer to the question, what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter, is simple. Translators and interpreters convert a source language into a desired linguistic. 

However, the translator uses written or readable sources as materials for translation, and they do this at their convenience and with reference resources. 

On the other hand, interpreters must convert verbal communication into spoken or sign language without using reference materials. They must also interpret the message in real-time, requiring subject matter and linguistic expertise.

Translators and interpreters are essential members of a localization team. They have respective roles to play, enabling the company to establish its presence in a local market and expand its business. Partnering with a credible language translation service provider is imperative if you’re planning to globalize and localize your business. Some companies might even have professional interpreters to meet your local verbal communication requirements.