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Knowing a different language is a highly valuable skill. It’s also a marketable one, with both translators and interpreters using their knowledge of other languages to perform distinct services for clients. While there are a number of basic similarities between the two, there is a notable difference between a translator and an interpreter that is worth knowing about if you want to pursue either (or both!) of these types of jobs—namely that translators work with written language, while interpreters work with oral language.

Here’s what else there is to know about the translator vs. interpreter distinction, with some helpful guidance for getting your footing in either field.

girl doing sign language
Sign language is just one of many languages that have a high demand for skilled interpreters. 

What Is a Translator?

A translator is someone who converts text in one language into text in another. And more so than just providing a word-for-word rendering, a translator is tasked with conveying the precise meaning of the text. The goal is to ensure that nothing gets “lost in translation,” with both texts saying the exact same thing, even if the words are slightly different when taken from one language to another.

What Does a Translator Do?

A translator works with businesses, non-profits, schools, hospitals, individual clients, and anyone else who is in need of written translation. Some translators specialize in certain sorts of work—such as those who translate books for publishing companies or documents for law firms—while others offer more general services.

Translators are integral to the daily functioning of many international organizations and are responsible for ensuring that all relevant documents get the same point across, regardless of what language they’re in.

Finding Translator Jobs

Most translators have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Equally important is native-level fluency in the two languages they are translating between.

Translators often work on a freelance basis, though there are translators who work in a full-time capacity for businesses. In either case, professional certifications such as those through the American Translators Association (ATA) can be instrumental in securing translator jobs. It can also be helpful to specialize in just one type of translation and to get further certifications in that specialty, if available.

Like with most freelancing positions, translators can look to online job boards to start picking up assignments—almost all of which can be done remotely. They can also look to secure a full-time or contract position with a designated translation agency.

Types of Translator Jobs

Before you look into how to get a job as a translator, think of what type of translation you might want to do. This will help you navigate the necessary certifications and experience that you’ll need to secure assignments in the translation industry.

Some of the most common jobs for translators include:

  • Literary translation: The translation of an author’s prose or poetry. In order to be successful, a literary translator must be able to precisely capture the author’s tone and style, in addition to the words on the page.
  • Legal translation: The translation of documents for court cases, settlements, depositions, and other legal purposes. A strong grasp of legalese in both languages is necessary, and legal translators often need to be able to translate into layman’s terms as well.
  • Medical translation: The translation of healthcare documents, including patient consent forms and information related to diagnoses and recommended procedures. Like legal translators, medical translators have an obligation to thoroughly understand the technical meaning of the text. They also must abide by the same confidentiality requirements as healthcare providers.  

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What Is an Interpreter?

An interpreter provides oral translations to facilitate conversations between speakers of two languages. Like those who specialize in written translations, an interpreter must be able to convey not just the words but the accurate meaning behind them. Good listening skills are essential since most interpreters work in real-time, quickly converting speech in one language into speech in another without long delays in the discussion.

What Does an Interpreter Do?

Interpreters sit in on conversations in order to facilitate communication between one speaker and another, or between a speaker and an audience. Their work is performed in person or over the phone and requires an instantaneous translation of the words—and meaning behind the words—that are being spoken. Some interpreters perform consecutive interpretation, taking notes during a speech and then conveying the speech in another language to the audience.

This role demands high-level fluency in both languages, plus the ability to paraphrase speech on-the-spot and without missing a beat. This includes the ability to orally translate idioms, colloquialisms, and other nuances of speech that might be difficult to convert from one language to another.

Finding Interpreter Jobs

The path to becoming an interpreter is similar to that of becoming a translator and includes a bachelor’s degree and industry-specific certifications and experience. Volunteering is a great way to gain interpreter experience, providing real-world experience along with a much-needed service.

Entry-level interpreter jobs can be found at corporations, schools, hospitals, and other organizations that work with individuals of multiple backgrounds and cultures, or at interpreter agencies that are hired by these organizations. There is also a need for talented interpreters to work in government positions. Freelancing is an option, but not all interpreter jobs can be performed remotely.

Types of Interpreter Jobs

Feel like your calling is in something specific? Here are some specialties within language interpretation that you may want to consider based on your skills and your interests:

  • Sign language interpretation: Interpretation between hearing and hearing-impaired individuals. A sign language interpreter must be fully proficient in using American Sign Language (ASL), and may choose to offer additional services such as tactile signing, which supports those with both hearing and visual impairments.
  • Conference interpretation: Interpretation at international conferences, such as those held for global corporations or government diplomacy.
  • Media interpretation: Interpretation for a media audience, typically via TV, film, or radio. Media interpreters serve as an intermediary communicator between reporters and the public and are usually expected to interpret without any lags in speech.
  • Medical or legal interpretation: Just as there are medical and legal translators, there are also medical and legal interpreters, offering much the same function but through speaking instead of writing. These types of interpreters are crucial for making sure that providers of medical and legal services are able to effectively communicate with individuals of all backgrounds, and there is a high demand for both varieties.

Can You Be Both a Translator and an Interpreter?

The difference between translator and interpreter roles ultimately comes down to purpose (i.e. written vs. oral translation) and skill set, though there is quite a bit of overlap between the two. If you have native fluency in two or more languages and you want to diversify your workload, you could absolutely offer both translator and interpreter services.

Both translation and interpretation are high-demand fields, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor reports that these types of jobs are expected to grow at an above-average rate throughout the decade. And because both lend themselves to freelance work, either—or both—could be an excellent choice for someone with strong language proficiency and a knack for connecting the dots between communicators of various backgrounds. 

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