Interpreters vs. Translators

Everyone using the services of an interpreter or translator should be clear about the difference between the two, as well as the role each plays in aiding communication.

An interpreter is a person specially trained to convert oral messages from one language to another.

A translator is a person specially trained to convert written text from one language to another.

While the “delivery method” (e.g. oral or written) may differ between the two professions, both reflect the cultural terms, expressions, and idioms that provide meaning to the content. Both must capture any expression or nuance in the meaning of the original content. In certain instances, concepts will have no linguistic equivalent, but the interpreter and translator’s job is to find an equivalent way of conveying the message with accuracy and completeness.

In addition, interpreters and translators can alert the creator of the original message to suggest a different approach. For example, if a provider is using complex medical terms that have no linguistic equivalent in the refugee patient’s language, the interpreter can ask the provider to repeat using less technical terms to express themselves.

As with other professions, the work of professional interpreters and translators are guided by codes of ethics. The National Code of Ethics for Healthcare Interpreters states that “interpreters strive to render the message accurately, conveying the content and spirit of the original message, taking into consideration the cultural context.” Thus, interpretation and translation are approached as “meaning for meaning” rather than “word for word.”

While the general public may use the terms interchangeably, and may mistakenly perceive that interpreters and translators are simply bilingual “parrots,” in reality specialized skills are needed to achieve effective communication between people who use different languages. Translators and interpreters are agents in creating understanding between people.

Contributed by The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC)