A translator and an interpreter

Translators who, like me, are also interpreters, seem to be an odd kind of beast to most people. In the village where I grew up, Saint Martin de Hinx, my mum owns a minuscule shop, which brings you back a hundred years as soon as you step in it. It is the social hub of the village, and I love sitting there listening to the latest gossip. I regularly have conversations that go something like this:
Customer: Still in England?
Me: Yes.
C: What are you doing over there?
Me: I’m a translator.

[Pause] C: Oh yes, your mother said, I remember. She says you don’t go to work.
Me: Well, I do. I work from home.
C: So you don’t go to work.[sigh] Me: No.
C: But your mother showed us photos of you around a table with important-looking people.
Me: That was on an interpreting job.
C: Interpreting? I thought you were a translator.
Me: I’m both. I do a lot more translating, but I sometimes go away on interpreting jobs.
C: So you do go to work?
Me: Sometimes.
It’s not just my mum’s customers who get confused by this odd choice of career. Recently, I read an excellent novel titled Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. It particularly appealed to me as one of its central characters is Gen, a young Japanese interpreter. He’s a charming character who uses his knowledge of a few languages to help people from various countries to communicate. But all through the book, he is referred to as a "translator". I’ve had quite a few clients referring to me as a "translator" when I was on interpreting assignments.
Now I might sound picky, but both activities are so radically different that I can’t just let it go and I always have to correct people who use these terms incorrectly. To me, translating evokes my familiar office, typing, surfing the Internet for information, cups of espresso, intense silent concentration or regular music breaks and even a nap on quieter days. When I think of interpreting, I see people, a strange place, cups of instant coffee, adrenaline rushes, constant talking and listening and a very dry mouth. Both activities, despite having French and English at their core, are extremely different and that’s why not all translators are interpreters and vice-versa.
By |2016-10-18T15:52:11+00:00February 25th, 2004|Interpreting|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Rym Rytr February 25, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    Here in the U.S., we see it pretty much as shown below. We have Intrepreters for the oral; Translarors for the written.
    I have a friend who does both, for Spanish. I’ll ask him, just for the fun of it. :o)
    Translator: NOUN: 1. One that translates, especially: a. One employed to render written works into another language. b. A computer program or application that renders one language or data format into another. 2. An interpreter.
    Intrepreter: NOUN: 1. One who translates orally from one language into another. 2. One who gives or expounds an interpretation: “An actor is an interpreter of other men’s words, often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world” (Alec Guinness).

  2. Peter April 2, 2004 at 10:45 am

    It’s a common lament in Japan as well. Language professionals know and insist upon the different definitions and nobody else cares what we think . . . and the popularity of a certain recent Bill Murray movie hasn’t made it any easier for interpreters to get people to use their preferred job title. 🙂

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