It's Really Not that Difficult: Translators, Interpreters, and LinguistsSome professionals have given up trying to correct these misunderstandings.

(December 26, 2018)

A surprising number of users of language services seem to misunderstand the distinctions between translators, interpreters, and linguists. Worse yet is the misunderstanding that any of these categories of professionals should be expected to 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. People spending large budgets on language services, however, should reasonably be expected to distinguish between these three terms of art in the field of language services. The differences are not difficult to grasp.


A translator engages in translation, which is the production of a target-language written text of a text written in a source language. Translators write words, but work without (the need to be) uttering a word that they are translating. A Japanese-to-English translator works from a Japanese source text, translating it into an English target text. Only a small proportion of Japanese-to-English or English-to-Japanese translators are capable of interpreting between those languages, and most do not even want to be interpreters.


An interpreter engages in interpreting (rarely but confusingly sometimes called interpretation), which is the expression in speech in the target language of a message spoken originally in the source language. While there are exceptions, most Japanese/English interpreters consider themselves exclusively interpreters and do not actively seek out translation assignments. Many would not be good translators.


A linguist is a specialist in, not surprisingly, 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 small number of working commercial translators who were also linguists and we have met very few linguists who are actively translating or who are even capable of translating or wish to translate as a profession. That separation is even greater when we consider linguists who might interpret. There are very few such people. Similar to the case of translators, interpreters and linguists are two quite distinct groups.

People Who Should Know Better, But Don'tYes, but sometimes it's purposeful

Occasionally you will encounter translation companies (particularly the ones more accurately characterized as brokers) boasting of all the "linguists" they have. This makes one wonder why they would talk about a group of professionals not generally engaged in or proficient at translation when they are trying to sell translation services.

They should know better, but perhaps they think it makes the people they purchase translations from feel better or think it makes their translators (almost never actually "theirs," as is discussed elsewhere) sound more sophisticated or professional to the people they sell translations to. 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 quite rare (our founder happens to be one), 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 such as a client gets 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.