Translators and Interpreters: What’s It Like?

To start off I’d like to clarify a couple of things. Interpreting deals with conveying information between spoken languages and translating conveys information between the written form of languages. Translating and interpreting are as different as writing magazine articles and public speaking. Some people are good at both and some people have a hard time doing one or the other. We find the same thing in translation and interpretation.

How Is Translation Different from Interpretation?

Translators are expected to be very exact and thorough. They usually get paid per word. The faster they can translate, the more money they can make. This means that the more time you spend on a translation, looking up words and editing, the less money you make. Consequently, more and more translators are becoming specialized in only one or two fields. Many find it boring but it is efficient and profitable. They are also buying more and more software like TRADOS. TRADOS, and other programs like it, remember the way a person has translated in the past and automatically translates similar or identical texts. This can cut down on translation time considerably.

How Is Interpretation Different from Translation?

Interpreters usually have almost no time think so they are given more leniency than translators.  Interpreters get paid in a variety of ways: per hour, per day, per half day, etc. There are two main types of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous. I had a professor who called consecutive interpreting “ping-pong” interpreting. The client says a sentence or two and waits for the interpreter to repeat the information in the target language before speaking again. Simultaneous interpreting is usually done with an interpreter sitting in another room watching and listening to the speaker through a TV and earphones. The interpreter then repeats what is said in the target language into a microphone so certain listeners (usually in the meeting room with the speaker) can listen to the speech while wearing earphones. The term “simultaneous” is a bit of a misnomer because it is usually impossible. To interpret simultaneously you would have to be able to read the speaker’s mind to know what she was going to say to be able to say it right when she said it.

How Are Interpretation and Translation Similar?

The obvious answer is that they both act as a bridge between languages. Apart from that, they both require regular learning. You need to keep up with the times and know how to say things like smart phone, IP address and other such words. That is in addition to keeping up with the terms of the industries which you work in. Medical translators need to keep up on new drugs and procedures and legal interpreters need to study up on new laws.

They are also similar because they are mostly freelancers. Fewer and fewer organizations hire people just to be translators and/or interpreters. They are expensive and not always needed for full time work. Translation and interpretation agencies are often the gatekeepers because translators and interpreters usually don’t know where to find regular work and the organizations that need them are clueless about hiring competent language professionals.

Their industries work in the same way: It’s either feast or famine. One month you may make $12,000 and next month you may make only $3,000. Some language professionals work around this by specializing in two or three areas. Another way around this is to find a niche so you are always in demand. How many good Japanese/Hindi translators are there who have a knowledge of computer programming?

The more specialized a language professional’s knowledge of a certain subject, or subjects, is the more he can charge. Then there is the issue of demand. For example, certain languages, like French and Spanish, have a high demand but also have a high supply (lots of people who know those languages plus another). Other languages, like Chinese and Arabic, have a high demand but disproportionately small number of translators and interpreters.

Free Tips
Before moving on to talk about working with languages as an academic, businessperson or technical professional, I’ll follow up soon with a post including tips for translators and interpreters.


3 Responses

  1. I am interested in subscription.

  2. Yup, Benny over at Fluentin3Months used to do this for work and I remembered him saying that the more obscure languages were actually the better money-makers.


  3. “Ping-pong interpreting”! That made me smile. It is the best name for this type of work I have ever heard though.
    Great read, thanks

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