Do interpreters have better language skills than translators?

In a thread about the road to becoming a Japanese-English translator/interpreter on the Translators Cafe forums (hat tip: Japanese Me), the user Sarah L had this to say about a fellow MIIS student who didn't have the linguistic chops for simultaneous interpretation:

I know you shouldn't compare people but here goes. I said in a previous post that my one and only French classmate couldn't make it to second-year simultaneous interpretation and she had to stick to written translation.

I think this is a pretty common feeling among interpreters: those without the language skills for interpreting have to fall back to translation. To be fair to Sarah L, she was talking about the rarefied world of simultaneous interpretation, where you really can't fake the level of ability required.

On the other hand, however, in my experience good interpreters rarely make good translators. The required skill sets are very different, even though they both involve "transforming" one language into another. Interpreters need to be very quick on their feet, adaptable, and have broad knowledge of a wide range of topics.

Meanwhile, translators need strong analytical skills and the ability to write well in the target language. Many translators claim that writing in the target language is the most important skill of the translator; I tend to agree with them, because this is the one that takes the longest to master. And no, I don't consider myself to be a top-level writer (yet), but I'd say I'm a solid journeyman. Luckily for me, writing appears to be one of the few skills that gets better with age. <G>

I actually used to interpret once in a while (strictly consecutively) for my translation clients. They were happy with my services, especially because I could interpret for the engineers and everybody could actually communicate (the full-time interpreters generally lacked in-depth technical knowledge).

I was paid around $600 per day plus travel and expenses, which was pretty good for me (although top interpreters in Japan make upwards of $1,000/day). Perhaps because I was working among the B-list interpreters, I never saw a big gap between the language abilities of the other interpreters and my own.

Although the pay was fair, I didn't like the work. I would always come back from an interpreting assignment completely drained, and need to veg for a day or two just to recover. I've always known that I'm not cut out to be an interpreter; I liked it mainly as a change of pace and an excuse to travel around Japan, but I was inwardly relieved when I moved to Okinawa and the interpreting requests dried up.

I've seen a lot of translation done by high-level interpreters, and especially when they're working into their B language (although they usually claim it's also an "A" language), you find all sorts of holes and little errors that would no doubt be passed over in spoken language.

I thus don't think that it's a matter of one group (interpreters or translators) having better language skills, but just that they work in entirely different fields, requiring very different skill sets.

10 comments to Do interpreters have better language skills than translators?

  • Thanks for the link. I seem to find new, interesting tidbits every time I go back to that thread. While I’m not a translator or interpreter (yet ^_^) I wonder how my skill set will apply to each. No way to find out until I do it, of course, so until then studying it is!

  • Ryan,

    I guess a good interpreter must have proper language skills, as well as a good translator. But an interpreter must also have a quicker mind and skills (acquired through proper training) to simultaneously hear and speak (simultaneous interpretation) and good memory (consecutive interpretation). And the translator must be more accurate with all the nicities of the text (style, accuracy, etc.) as it is not enough just to convey the idea. And, of course, not every person can sit at one place translating boring manuals for weeks 🙂

  • There are still many great English and Japanese novels that haven’t been translated… and an interpreter won’t really help solve that problem.

  • I agree that the two are almost entirely different skill-sets. I think it’s pointless to try to rank one above the other on the “linguistic skills” chart; a person who would try to make that sort of comparison is probably just someone who hasn’t learned enough about the art to realize how little they actually know. All the top-flight interpreters I’ve worked alongside have shared the knowledge that we do different jobs and it’s hard to jump between the two.

  • Hi,

    Although I am a translator, I have never understood how interpreters’ mind work. They seem like E.T. to me – not meaning anything bad. I guess I don’t have their skills at all. 🙂

  • Couldn’t agree more with respect to the different skill sets. I remember a translation teacher who would tell us, his students, that the success in simultaneous interpreting is generally totally independent on and thus cannot be predicted on the basis of the candidate’s language skills. In addition to that, I think that it’s the more extroverted types who tend to gravitate towards any kind of interpreting, while the introverts like me tend to chose written translation. When I was launching my career I found it quite annoying that lots of uninformed folks assumed that I was going to interpret as well.

  • @nandasoreya‽

    The interpreter’s product is more ephemeral than a translation, which is one reason I prefer translating. But their services are definitely valuable.

  • MT

    “Language skills” means different things. I have no doubt that the average interpreter probably has a larger active vocabulary in his or her nonnative language–and probably better speaking skills in that language in general.

    However, I doubt very much that an interpreter has writing skills as strong as those of a translator of novels or technical knowledge as strong as those of a translator of patents.

    The interpreter’s and translator’s skill sets share a surface similarity of having to do with “world languages,” but beyond that they are remarkably distinct fields.

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  • Karen Sandness

    One skill that an interpreter needs is the ability to “change channels” instantly, to take in a stream of Language A and immediately convert it into an output of Language B. Even though I can translate pretty complex written material, I can’t interpret above a simple level. In fact, if I’m speaking one language and someone suddenly comes up to me and starts talking in another, I have to switch consciously before I can respond.

    I once asked a GreekEnglish simultaneous interpreter (the daughter of Greek immigrants) what went on in her head when she was working. She told me that she didn’t actually know how she did it, but somehow she was automatically able to have one language coming into her ears and the other language coming out of her mouth just a couple of words behind the original speaker. This was a skill that she had had since childhood, when she had interpreted for her parents.

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