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Translation vs. Interpretation – and why are they needed?

Are you feeling confused about the difference between translation and interpretation?

I have to, once again, share a TED Talk with you (I just can’t help it!). This one is called More than Words, and the 11-minute-long clip will give you a good insight into the differences between translation and interpretation.

Many people mix up the two, but the main difference is actually very simple:

Translation is written and interpretation is spoken


Strong linguistic and cultural skills in translation and interpretation

Despite the difference between translators working with written words and interpreters with spoken language, both types of language professionals need strong linguistic and communication skills, in-depth cultural knowledge, and expertise in the chosen area. Therefore, whether it's an interpretation taking place orally in real-time or it's a written translation in a text-based form requiring a longer time, it's not enough to speak a couple of languages well, but most professionals have worked hard to acquire the skills they possess.


When it comes to interpretation, it's either done simultaneously or consecutive.

Simultaneous interpretations are probably the ones we hear most about. Think about big international conferences where the participants, often from all over the world, through headphones receive information from the interpreters, hidden behind screens in the back of the room – just like Nicole Kidman in the film “The Interpreter”.

When it comes to consecutive interpretation, the interpreter first listens and takes notes, special notes that are only intended for short-term memory, and later explains the content of the speech. It’s not so much about remembering specific words and translating word for word, but the interpreter instead concentrates on the flow of ideas that he hears.

Interpretation fascinates me, and I was exposed to it when I was a sustainable development intern at UNESCO in Paris. It was quite a feeling sitting in one of the enormous UN conference rooms at the UNESCO head office listening to an interpreter making the talks and lectures understandable to me in English.

I work as a translator, but I realise that interpretation is a completely different category, requiring different skills. Their vocabulary, ability to work with interpretation technology tools, concentration span, and multitasking skills are impressive and admirable.

So why do we need translators and interpreters in today’s world with translation technology and so many English speakers? This Nelson Mandela quote says it all:

Through translation and interpretation you can talk to someone's heart

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