Translator or Interpreter: Why it is difficult to do both

June 30, 2019

Let’s start this week’s blog by clearing up the difference between a translator and an interpreter. Frequently, the terms are used interchangeably, when actually they are entirely different jobs. It would be the equivalent of referring to a writer as a mediator; simply not the same thing.

An interpreter will attend meetings or presentations and verbally communicate dialogue from one party to another, where each side speaks a different language. For more information on the different types of interpreter, check out Mission Translate’ blog on Simultaneous versus Consecutive Interpreting.

In contrast, a translator works on documents and translates written content from one language into another.

With these brief explanations, it is clear to see that these are entirely different roles and therefore it is quite unlikely that a person is able to do both well, even if they speak the relevant languages.

What are the differing attributes required to fulfil these roles successfully? Mission Translate looks to answer this question below.


Good verbal communicators

It goes without saying that as an interpreter, you need to be a good verbal communicator, but this also includes being a good listener. An interpreter needs to take in carefully all information that is provided and process it quickly to deliver an accurate and effective interpretation to the respondent.

Excellent language skills

To provide this quick and accurate service, an interpreter’s language skills need to be top notch. There is no time to ponder the word, as participants are likely to have moved on. Your necessary vocabulary should be readily available to enable a smooth flow of conversation or dialogue.

Good at working with people

Interpreting involves being good with people. You can be placed in stressful and sometimes emotionally difficult situations, where it is your job to remain impartial and react calmly and appropriately to any difficult discussions. Resilience and the ability to remain in control are therefore also key characteristics to work effectively in these situations.

As an interpreter, you should be a good reader of facial expressions and body language, as these can provide subtle clues and add to an effective interpretation of what is being said.

Cultural awareness

As an interpreter, it is also important you are culturally aware. Learning the language and being fully fluent is only the first step. You need to have a knowledge of people’s values, their conventions and country-specific processes. For example: What actions are considered culturally appropriate and what should be avoided? What political and religious beliefs are held and how do these affect the way a person is interacting? How do educational or political systems differ across differing countries and how can the equivalent to relayed to another culture?

Good time management and organisational skills

Working as an interpreter, you are likely to take on numerous bookings in different locations and at different times throughout the week. Being late is not an option and can even face penalties, so good diary management and organisational skills are key to ensure all runs smoothly.


Translation is a skill that is studied to degree level and beyond, as there is a lot of technical know-how that is required in order to produce an effective translation.

Native-level knowledge of the language

A full and complete knowledge of the languages worked in is the first step. This includes an understanding of grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

Most translators will only work into their native language from a 2nd language, as to have an understanding to a level that is able to produce a document which reads well to a native can be extremely challenging.

Subject-specific knowledge

Most translators will also specialise in the subject area that they translate in, as a high level of understanding of subject-specific terminology is also required. For example, consider the language used in medical case studies. Some of this vocabulary would perplex even a native speaker, therefore to be able to translate it, your knowledge must be impeccable.

Specialising in a subject area will also allow you, as a translator, to write in a style you feel most proficient. For example, translating legal documents requires a completely different style of writing to translating marketing copy. Both are equally challenging; therefore, a certain level of skill needs to be developed in the relevant area.

Ability to research

As a translator, you will continually come across new topics and concepts, even if you specialise in one or two areas. The dedication to research therefore is important to ensure you remain fully up to date, so your translation is accurate.

Cultural awareness

Here, we see an overlap with the skills of an interpreter, as when working as a translator, you also need to be culturally aware. Localisation is a key component of a translation; making sure the content of a document is appropriate and relevant for the new target market and that any country-specific processes or constructs included in the content are transferred effectively.

Computer skills

Gone are the days of pen and paper! To be a successful translator, you need to have good computer skills. These are not limited to word processing, as files can sometimes come in different formats and, to avoid limiting your work, it is necessary to be competent in working with a variety of file types.


The life of a translator can be a lonely one, unless you have an in-house position. There will be plenty of hours spent at your laptop, so it is necessary to be self-motivated and conscientious in order to keep your clients happy.

Good time management and organisational skills

As a successful translator, it is likely that you will be juggling more than one project at a time. To be able to do this, it is necessary to manage your time well and be highly organised with your work.

At Mission Translate, we are always on the lookout for new talent that has the skills described above. If you feel you have what it takes to be a translator or interpreter, just get in contact with us.

By Lorna Paice

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