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It's Really Not that Difficult:
Translators, Interpreters, and Linguists

December 26, 2018

A surprising number of users of language services seem not to understand the distinctions between translators, interpreters, and linguists. Worse yet is the misunderstanding that any of these should be able to do the job of the others.

Admittedly, even well-known dictionaries leave room for—and can be accused of promoting—confusion between the terms translator, interpreter, and linguist. But people spending large budgets on language services should reasonably be expected to distinguish between these three terms of art in the field of language.

Translator

A translator engages in translating, which is writing in a target language a message written in a source language. Translators write words, but work without uttering a word. A Japanese-to-English translator works from a Japanese source text, translating it into English target text. Only a tiny proportion of Japanese-to-English or English-to-Japanese translators are capable of doing interpreting between those languages, and most do not aspire to be interpreters.

Interpreter

An interpreter engages in interpreting, which is the expression in speech in the target language message spoken in the source language. Most Japanese/English interpreters consider themselves exclusively interpreters and do not actively seek out translation assignments.

Linguist

A linguist is a specialist, not surprisingly, in linguistics, which deals with the characteristics of language, including aspects such structure, syntax, semantics, and origins. In many years of serving the commercial translation market, we have encountered only a tiny number of translators who were also linguists and we have met very few linguists who are active translating or who are even capable of translating as a profession. Translators and linguists are two distinct groups.

People Who Should Know Better But Don't

Occasionally you will encounter translation companies (usually better characterized as brokers) boasting of all the "linguists" they have. This makes you wonder why they would talk about a group of professionals not generally engaged in translation. They should know better, but perhaps they think it makes their translators (almost never actually "theirs," as will be discussed elsewhere shortly) sound more sophisticated or professional. It does not; it only makes them sound as if they are working in the wrong field.

To be sure, there are a small number of people who cross the boundaries between the three areas of translation, interpreting, and linguistics, particularly between translation and interpreting. But these are rare exceptions, and a translator should not be assumed capable of interpreting, or an interpreter of translating.

There you have it; a short description of these often-confused professions. Although it might be optimistic for language professionals to expect people outside these fields never to confuse them, when a non-specialist get it right, we feel more comfortable than when we need, for example, to inform an interpreting client that will we not be translating in their meeting or deposition.