Eyes or ears: Interpreting vs. translation

“What do you mean the manual and warranties are all in Portuguese?”  Now your supplier wants to set up a phone call. You’re not quite sure what they need, and you’re afraid you’ll sound hopelessly ignorant on the phone. What do you do? Or perhaps you want to develop a relationship with an Eastern European firm. What languages should you provide your materials in? In today’s global economy, linguistic issues are part of doing business—but how do you know what services you need? When a first-time client sent us an MS Word document to be returned in 26 languages, they said, at various times, they wanted it interpreted or converted or changed into. In fact, the service they needed was translation.

Of course, we don’t expect someone outside our industry to use the terminology we use, any more than we would know the correct names of state-of-the-art surgical tools. (Although our translators who specialize in medical content would!) A service provider must be able to identify the client’s needs as a step toward fulfilling them.

If a Tembua client asks for translators for a conference along with booths and electronic equipment, we realize they are requesting interpreters.

Translation refers to the written word; interpreting, to the spoken or signed word. Thus, a document is translated, but the person standing next to the Prime Minister is most likely an interpreter. In general, context signals the meaning of these two terms, even when the speaker confuses them.

But sometimes, the context needs to be clarified even for people who handle these issues every day.

If the client requests a translator onsite for a meeting, we ask more questions. Interpreting services can be provided for the spoken components of a meeting, but translation services can be ordered as well if a linguist is needed to quickly translate documents, usually financial, that are being discussed and revised immediately. Sometimes the translator is conferenced in and versions fly back and forth, a process that can be both exciting and stressful!

The confusion between these two terms is most likely born out of the perceived awkwardness of the phrase interpreting a speech. We do, after all, use interpret in everyday conversation to mean understanding the meaning a certain way. Thus, many people say translating a speech to indicate that a formal linguistic service is occurring, even though that phrase technically means something different. Luckily, the meaning is usually clear from context.  Usually.

Sometimes, however, precise usage is a must. We recently responded to a large RFP for linguistic services. The documentation was massive. The required response was going to be a major undertaking, and the languages needed were numerous and widespread. No problem.

We came to a stop, however, when we read that the client required onsite translation and return of documents as PDF. The next sentence said that oral translation may be needed along with the standard. The RFP then went on to discuss Braille.

Later in the documentation, we found this sentence: Telephonic translation as well as multi-language desktop publishing is needed for all languages being interpreted.

That was puzzling. What did they need in written form, and what, if anything, spoken? And what was Braille’s role in all this? Rather than guess, we sent a request for clarification. When the answer came back, we found we were right in all but one instance. We were glad we’d asked!

Language is a living, growing thing, and the use of translation and interpreting is changing, merging. Within the next two decades, we may lose the word interpret in the sense of moving between languages. Who knows, English may create or borrow another word entirely to pick up the meaning. Context will be more important than ever!

There are several different categories of interpreting. Send us the form below to receive more information!

Patricia May