What is the difference between translation and interpreting?

The media have used these terms interchangeably over the years, which has created quite a bit of confusion among laypeople, but translation and interpreting are two completely different fields requiring vastly different skillsets, training, and certifications. They even require different professional temperaments and engage totally different parts of the brain. Translation is the conversion of the written word from one language to another, while interpreting is the conversion of the spoken word from one language to another.

If you are considering entering the T&I field but are unsure whether to pursue translation or interpreting, try out both at first to see which one you like best. Once you have done some of both, you will discover a clear preference fairly quickly. But after you decide on one, it is a helpful practice to continue engaging in the other. For example, if you decide that translation is for you, keep working on your interpreting skills. Interestingly, engaging in occasional interpreting helps you become a better translator, and engaging in occasional translating helps you become a better interpreter.

How can I become a translator or interpreter?

It’s actually ridiculously easy to work as or “become” a translator or interpreter because the U.S. T&I industry is unregulated. But becoming a professional translator or interpreter takes a whole lot more – more than language classes or being bilingual.

To offer up a couple of analogies, there is a huge difference between reading a stack of medical textbooks and attending a year of med school, and being a board-licensed neurosurgeon. There is also a huge difference between being a good cook and being a Cordon Bleu chef. The difference is that the surgeon and the chef have experience, study, intensive training, and nationally and internationally approved and recognized credentials under their belts. Similarly, to become a translator or interpreter, you must gain hands-on experience over time, learning by doing. You must also study on your own by reading as much material in your intended target language (the language you will be translating into) as you can get your hands on. You must also study in a post-graduate degree or certificate program in translation or interpreting. Last but absolutely not least, you must become certified by a nationally accredited and recognized association. First, let’s talk about the study part.

Where can I study to become a translator or interpreter?

There are various program options to choose from. Most are post-graduate programs, meaning you must already have a bachelor’s degree in a foreign language or linguistics to be accepted into them. They are typically one to two years in length. They will be online or in-person, and will offer a degree or certificate of proficiency in translation or interpreting (or both). They are also typically in one chosen language. Some will train you in a specialization, such as medical interpreting or court interpreting.

Each program is different, so take the time to look into each one to decide which one is right for you. Don’t hesitate to contact each program you are interested in, and ask lots of questions.

Here are the top-ranked programs that are currently available. Please note that this list is by no means exhaustive and is subject to change:

Last but not least, the American Translators Association (ATA), which is the national association for translators and interpreters, has its own coveted and prestigious certification which can be obtained by successfully passing the ATA certification exam. This exam, while quite difficult to pass, is extremely worthwhile. We’ll provide more information on ATA certification in the next section.

While studying in any of these programs, you will gain a great deal of hands-on experience, because in T&I one learns by doing. By the time you graduate, you will be very well prepared to work in your profession for any clients you choose.

What are the advantages to becoming a certified translator or interpreter?

Getting any kind of certification or credentialing in translation or interpreting will be helpful, but the more widely recognized the program or organization is, the more of a boost it will be to your business and your chosen career. Also, obtaining widely-recognized credentials helps to professionalize our industry as a whole, something that is sorely needed in the United States where T&I is completely unregulated.

For translators in the U.S., the sine qua non of credentialing is the ATA certification. With respect to ATA certification, there are many advantages to this type of certification which do not come with the university degree or certification programs listed above, including the right to use the CT (Certified Translator) designation and the ATA logo in your professional correspondence, a public listing in the ATA Directory as an ATA-certified translator which typically attracts a lot of business, the ability to provide translations for government agencies and offices, courts, and the like, your own ATA seal, and much more.

AAIT hosts sittings of the ATA certification exam each year. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to be informed of sittings as they are scheduled.

All about the ATA certification process:American Translators Association (ATA) Certification

Interpreters have many different directions they can go in:

  • To become a state-certified court interpreter, you will want to obtain training and certification from the Georgia Commission on Interpreters (if you are viewing these FAQs in a different state, consult your own state’s commission on interpreters). This certification will enable you to interpret for any court in the state of Georgia. Consult the National Center for State Courts website for a list of helpful self-assessment and study tools, including practice exam kits and dictionaries.
  • To become a federally certified court interpreter, you will need to pass the federal court interpreter certification examination (FCICE). It is administered in two phases: a written examination which is offered in even years, and an oral examination which is offered in odd years. You will need to demonstrate various technical skills and the ability to interpret in consecutive and simultaneous modes. Currently, the FCICE is being offered for Spanish/English testing only, because that is by far the greatest interpreting need for the federal judiciary.
  • If you want to be a certified medical interpreter, there are many different programs you can choose from – do a Google search and you’ll get a very long list. However, not all of them are widely recognized, so choose carefully. You might wish to narrow your focus to the two national certifications that are available: the CMI credential offered by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters  and the certification offered by the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). The CMI credential is currently being offered in Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese only; CCHI certification is offered to medical interpreters of all languages.
  • To become a certified community interpreter, there are many community interpreter certification programs to choose from as well, but the best-known ones are under the International School of Linguists, which offers many different levels of certifications for interpreters at various stages of their career. The courses are all online (remote) and can be taken at your own pace.

Please note that there is a difference between receiving a certificate for successfully completing a program of study and being certified, which means that you take and pass the exam to get the certification. The exams for these certifications are quite difficult and expensive. Therefore, it is widely recommended that you already have at least several years’ worth of experience under your belt, when you decide to spend the money and time trying for this type of certification to increase your chances of passing the exam.

What’s the difference between a certified translation and a certified translator?

A certified translation (referred to as a sworn translation outside of the U.S.) is a translation rendered by a certified translator (with ATA certification or a certification or degree issued by a university program). It will be accompanied by an affidavit signed by the translator before a notary public, with legal language attesting to the translator’s credentials and expertise, that the translator is fluent in both the source and target languages, and that the translation is accurate and was rendered to the best of his or her knowledge, belief, and ability. This language effectively certifies the translation and is what makes it a certified translation. Certified translations are always required by U.S. government offices, agencies and courts.

Not all translations produced by certified translators are certified translations. They always need to have an affidavit of accuracy attached.

What’s the difference between consecutive and simultaneous interpreting?

In consecutive interpreting, the source-language speaker talks for a short length of time, during which the interpreter listens and takes notes. Then the speaker pauses, and the interpreter delivers an interpretation in the target language of what was said by the speaker based on the interpreter’s notes. When the interpreter is finished speaking, the speaker resumes speaking, during which the interpreter takes notes for the next segment, and so on until the message is completed.

Sometimes the source-language speaker will give his or her entire message from start to finish without stopping, after which the interpreter will provide his or her interpretation, but in both cases, the process is “start-and-stop,” where the interpreter follows the source speaker, in order (consecutive).

Obviously, this type of interpreting takes longer. Therefore, ideal situations for consecutive interpreting would include small, short business meetings, press conferences, or one-on-one interactions like interviews.

In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter delivers the source-language speaker’s message in the target language while the source-language speaker is still speaking, with a slight delay in the beginning.  

While SI is most famously used at sessions of the United Nations, it is also used in news broadcasts and large conventions and conferences. It is also used during presentations that deliver a large amount of information in a limited time frame.

For SI, interpreters are required to sit in soundproof booths with headsets. They listen to the source-language speakers, interpret into their headsets, and the attendees, wearing their own headsets, hear the interpretation in their target language(s)  

What are some things to consider about medical vs. legal (court) vs. conference interpreting?

According to Agata Baczyk, the author of the LI (Legal Interpreters) Blog,

The role an interpreter plays in medical settings differs somewhat from that in legal settings. All interpreters aid in the communication between two or more parties speaking different languages. However, due to the nature of legal proceedings, interpreters are required to strictly adhere to the role of an impartial party, meaning that an interpreter should not interject any additional information (as well as omit any). Regardless of what the interpreter may have heard from or about the LEP during any other interactions, or if the LEP asks for an explanation of the legal proceeding or any advice, the interpreter is barred from interceding on their own volition.

Medical settings allow the interpreter some leeway to act in a limited capacity as a patient advocate and cultural broker. The interpreter’s job is still to facilitate communication so that all parties understand each other. However, when deemed professionally appropriate, the interpreter may, as a patient advocate, interject relevant information that may have been learned at another time, such as any known allergies. Of course, such interjections should be made known they are coming from the interpreter and not currently conveyed by the LEP, and should be used sporadically, when the patient’s well-being or life are at risk. Additionally, a medical interpreter might serve as a cultural broker and may provide explanations to clarify culturally relevant information. For example, if a patient tells the doctor they used a culture-specific holistic treatment for a certain condition, the interpreter may provide a further explanation and/or details regarding the home remedy used.

“However, independent medical exams are an exception to the leeway granted in medical settings. The interpreter is required to adhere to the same restrictions as legal interpreters, since these exams are usually conducted as part of an ongoing legal case.”

Conference interpreters also typically have a lot more leeway than legal (court) interpreters. They need not interpret verbatim in most cases, and are able to use their best judgment in rendering a faithful interpretation of what is said in the source language.

What resources are available for continuing education?

Just as in the medical, engineering, legal, financial, and insurance professions, translators and interpreters must keep their credentials active by attending conferences, seminars, or webinars, or taking courses to earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs).

This is an excellent reason to join the American Translators Association and/or your local American Translators Association chapter. Membership in either or both keeps you in the loop and makes it convenient to take advantage of all the CEU-eligible courses and events offered by these organizations.