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Translation Versus Interpretation
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Translation Versus Interpretation

By Radlex

The concepts of translating and interpreting are often confused, particularly by the public at large, whereas professionals make a careful distinction between the two. Professionally, written material is translated from one language to another in written form. Spoken communications are interpreted orally, either simultaneously or consecutively.

But that is only part of the picture. The lines between the two modes become blurred when we think of the court interpreter who normally listens to Language A and then translates what he hears into Language B, orally. But, what is the interpreter doing when he is handed a written document in one language to read aloud in another language (technically called "sight translation")?  We can say that translation is the general term, that interpreting is a subset of translating, as diagrammatically illustrated:







The lines between the two terms are also blurred when we think of the translator, poring over Language A to understand exactly what is meant before translating into Language B; the translator must interpret the meaning before he can translate the words. Another level is then added to the diagram:








Interpret meaning
 Translate orally


Interpret meaning
Translate in writing

If we look generally, not professionally, at the two terms, it is clear that basically, both refer to the same process of transferring the meaning from one format to another. This may involve words, ideas, pictures or any type of communication. I think the general distinction between translating and interpreting can be succinctly expressed by saying that something that is not understandable or not understood is interpreted so that it can be understood. Different people can interpret the same x in different ways. Think of a painting, a piece of music, a piece of literature. After it is understood and interpreted, consciously or formally, it can be translated.

So we can say that an interpreter (who works with the spoken word) is also a translator, for he translates the meaning from one form (language) to another (language). Because he is translating orally and not in writing, professional tradition has made the distinction that he is interpreting.

The specialized meaning of the two terms as used in our profession is not shared by the lay public, not yet. Every time you meet the uninitiated, you can help to educate them by explaining the professional difference. But remember, the interpreter on TV is also a translator, for he is translating from one language to another, but he is interpreting for the person speaking. Just as the psychiatrist is a doctor, not all doctors are psychiatrists, so the interpreter is a translator, but all translators are not (professional) interpreters (even though they have to interpret meaning before they can translate!).

There are some interesting words for interpreters/translators:
dragoman, interpreter or guide in countries where Arabic, Turkish or Persian is spoken (dragomanno, Italian)
exegete, interpreter or analyst of obscure texts (often used for Bible study)
bridge, contemporarily used for translator or interpreter
Other languages than English also have some gems:
truchement, trucheman (French), the same word as dragoman, meaning interpreter or intermediary
Dolmetscher (German), interpreter,
Übersetzer (German), literally, trans-lator
Readers are cordially invited to share their ideas and comments on this murky topic.

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