Find the differences: Translator or interpreter? 

Have you ever confused a translator with an interpreter, or simultaneous translation with consecutive translation?If the answer is yes, you’re definitely not alone, and therefore we have decided once and for all to set the terminology straight and explain what exactly the differences between them are.A Language Lesson

One of the most common errors in today’s translation industry is the confusion between translators and interpreters. They’re both professionals, both deal in language and in translating from one language to another – and yet, the differences between them are critical: a translator is a person who translates written texts, while an interpreter translates orally.

Translators translate “in their own time” on a computer, where they can use various dictionaries, stop and continue later, consult with their client, go back to the translation at a later date and make necessary changes, and so on. In contrast, an interpreter must translate orally, on the spot, without stammering, without getting confused, without stopping, with no aids and without the option of checking for different interpretations or consulting with the client during the translation. It’s difficult!

And that’s not the only difficult thing – we hope we won’t be too confusing when we tell you that oral interpretation consists of two secondary fields: Simultaneous translation and consecutive translation.

Simultaneous Translation

Simultaneous translation requires special training and is considered the most difficult of all translation tasks. It is definitely the pinnacle of the translation world, as it requires that the human brain perform two cognitive actions simultaneously: The interpreter needs to listen to what’s being said and understand it all in depth, and repeat what’s being said in a different language.

Simultaneous interpreters sit in a soundproof acoustic chamber with a glass wall through which they can watch the speakers. Watching the speakers is important, as body language has a definite connection with the spoken word. The acoustic chamber allows the interpreter to concentrate on what’s being said and not hear interpreters working alongside in different languages, or other noises from the audience, while whispering the translation into a microphone that transmits their words directly to their listeners’ ears.

The interpreter does not translate word by word (unlike a text translator), but provides the general gist of what is being spoken. As simultaneous translation is such exhausting and difficult cognitive work for the human brain, sometimes more than one interpreter is needed, even with the same languages and the same event. This way, the interpreters can take turns, working for fifteen minutes to half an hour each time, allowing their minds to rest. Even an experienced super-interpreter won’t translate for more than half an hour at one sitting.

Consecutive Translation

Consecutive translation is just as it sounds: The interpreter translates each segment in a consecutive manner. The interpreter listens to the end of the spoken segment (for instance, a lawyer questioning a witness and asking a question, or a foreign delegation in a closed meeting), and only after the segment is done do they translate, while the other listeners wait patiently for him to finish.
With consecutive translation as well, audio equipment of microphones and headphones can be of great assistance, particularly in the case of a delegation visiting a factory or a production site, on a long day of meetings at the stock exchange and so on. This way, the interpreter can walk around with a headset microphone and transmit to a mobile system, with his audience listening over headphones throughout the event. This type of equipment is not always necessary, and it definitely can be done without it or using equipment present at the site.
With all of the reservations noted above, it’s important to remember that consecutive translation is definitely not easy either. The interpreter may have more time, but he still can’t stop everything to Google an unfamiliar word. Their task is to provide immediate, albeit not simultaneous, translation.

So when do you use simultaneous translation, and when do you use consecutive translation? ‏

Simultaneous translation is used in events where the speakers can’t be stopped to wait to the end of the translation. A famous example of gatherings that require simultaneous translation are UN sessions; you’ve probably noticed how attendees are all wearing headphones. So just in case you were wondering, they’re not sitting there listening to music, but rather to an interpreter conveying the contents of the meeting in their language.

An additional example is a trial that is open to the public or broadcast over media. In this case, the judge can’t be asked to stop and wait for the interpreter to finish translating for the defendant.
Another very familiar form of simultaneous translation is sign language translation, as well as the option of “whispering” simultaneous translation, which does not require technical equipment and there is no need for a sound technician or an acoustic chamber. This sort of translation is suitable for small groups, or for a single listener, where the interpreter “whispers” the translation directly into the listeners’ ears, immediately and simultaneously.

Translation – the Best and the Brightest

This must be the moment where you wonder if anyone with a good command of languages can provide oral translation, and the answer is – definitely not. Israel has just one body that officially certifies interpreters for oral translation – Bar Ilan University. Its simultaneous translation lab qualifies the few who manage to pass the onerous training that teaches their minds to perform two actions simultaneously. The department’s graduates undergo exhausting testing, and only afterwards can they enter the job market and be invited to provide oral translation at conventions and conferences.

Such long training is justified: The interpreter needs to be super-professional and super-sensitive to their linguistic environment – for instance, in order to identify based on the speaker’s intonation when they start speaking, whether their tone is positive or negative (before they even say what they mean to say), in order to provide a precise translation of words that sound very similar to other words but have completely different meanings, speakers who aren’t speaking clearly, or using poor or incorrect grammar. It’s no wonder that there are interesting studies being conducted on the minds of simultaneous interpreters and the way they work. Want to learn more about simultaneous translation and consecutive translation? Here you’ll find a fascinating TED talk.

We hope we helped you distinguish between the various terms, and will never confuse an interpreter with a translator again.