Translators & Interpreters: Is There a Difference?

The other day I went to my preferred local credit union to open a business account for my new translation business. The nice lady helping me with the account set-up got curious and asked, “so, what kind of business is Spanish Connect?” To which I replied, “I offer Spanish translation services to businesses or institutions that are wanting to connect with the Latino market more effectively.” “That’s great!”, she said, “So, do you go to the local schools too and translate for international students?”

I thought my answer to her first question had been pretty clear and straight forward, but after listening to her second question I realized that there are probably many others who, just like her, attribute a different function or meaning to the term “translation.”

So, my post today is simply to clarify misconceptions and explain the difference between a translator and an interpreter.

A translator is a language expert who works with the written word. They normally work with a specific language pair—like German to English, for example—and translate the original or source document into the target language, which is usually their native language.

An interpreter, on the other hand, is also a language expert who works with the oral aspect of translation. You’ve probably seen them at court hearings, beauty pageants, or even at your local school or medical center.  Even though many people refer to them as “translators,” the correct term to be used is “interpreters.”

Translators have the advantage of time. When working on a project they can consult their resources, use their dictionaries, rephrase, edit, and so forth, in order to create a final product they are satisfied with and that their clients will love.

Interpreters, however, don’t have that luxury. They must be quick with their thinking and their interpretation of the oral input they are being provided. They don’t have the time to find the best word to define a certain term, or to reword a sentence they have already interpreted a certain way. An interpreter must be very decisive and have the ability to recall what’s been said to be able to produce an interpretation that is eloquent and professional.

An interesting fact about translators and interpreters is that they normally work under a certain specialization. For example, some may specialize in translations/interpretations for the medical field, while others concentrate in the legal and education fields. There are many different specialties that a translator and an interpreter can choose from, which they normally develop through translating and interpreting in the fields that they pursue and with time they become experts in those specific fields.

So, next time you want to call an interpreter a translator, think again.  Remember what it feels like when your mom calls you by your sister’s name? Like, almost every day? Likewise, translators and interpreters–in spite of their roles being so closely related–don’t like to be called what they are not. Trust me, they’ll correct you if you do. =-)


About the author:
Beverly Hayes specializes in social, adoption-related topics, medical, travel and tourism, and marketing translations from English into Spanish. A mother of five, Beverly is the founder/owner of Spanish Connect Translations, a translation agency based in Rexburg, Idaho. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah with a Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Laboratory Science, and this last December she finished her Master’s degree in Spanish Linguistics from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Being a stay-at-home mom for most of her life, Beverly has now taken upon herself a new goal–to contribute to the world in a different way by jumping on the entrepreneurship bandwagon. She has the education, the cultural background, and the writing skills that are necessary to succeed in this competitive field and provide a quality product that’ll stand out among the rest. You may visit her website at, or contact her via Twitter: MySpanConnect and email:

3 thoughts on “Translators & Interpreters: Is There a Difference?

  1. Nice article Beverly… I remember back when I was studying interpretation… people were always “ahh translation, right?!” and I would have to explain every single time. :/

    1. I have to admit that before I got into the translation/interpretation business I would make the same mistake. Now that I know better, why not share, right? Thank you so much for commenting, Maria!

  2. Every now and then I’ll get a phone call from a potential client looking for an interpreter. Most end clients don’t see the distinction between the two and in their head translator and interpreter are the same thing. So I often have to explain that I work with the written word and refer them to colleagues who have the skills to be interpreters. I think this just shows that our profession is a little bit underrepresented in the media.

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