There is something about “being” a translator that is very different from “being” an interpreter.  It’s not just about sitting in front of a desk by yourself versus being surrounded by people when you do your work. Translators want to take their time finding that perfect word that will make them feel as though the Earth’s axis just shifted… just a tiny bit. Interpreters, on the the hand, want to just spit it out and move on. When you are interpreting there is no time to dance around sentence constructions and play with different collocations until you hit upon just the right combination of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that truly sings to you. And by the same token, when you translate there is no need to rush to the finish line —unless, of course, you have a certain deadline looming over your head and it’s a matter of finishing the job on time or losing the client.

When translators want to transition into the world of interpreters, they face a horrific reality: renditions are not perfect. They do have to be accurate, and in the judiciary setting they must also be complete. In legal settings an interpreter cannot edit to make the source speaker sound more eloquent or elegant. The interpreter cannot leave out those things the translator would consider superfluous under any other circumstance. So it seems that translators must overcome certain work habits that I’m sure were carefully cultivated to arrive at the desired quality in their final translations. But in the world of simultaneous and consecutive renditions, where all you have are nanoseconds to make all sorts of linguistic decisions, quality is demarcated by somewhat different standards.

First and foremost, you cannot spend precious seconds, or even fragments of a second, searching your mind for all the possible renditions a given term or phrase may have, trying to decide which one is actually the most exact equivalent. You must make those decisions beforehand, identifying what terms and phrases you will use as the best target-language equivalents, keeping them stored in your long-term memory for instant retrieval when needed. For interpreters, short- and long-term memory are critical, because everything they need to perform competently must already be stored there when they take to the stage to perform —figuratively and literally. Dictionaries are reserved for the post-mortem of an interpreting event, when you are no longer interpreting and can take the time to look up terms and consult with colleagues. That is the time to make changes if you decide there is a better translation for this or that term. But when the interpreter is next to a witness or interpreting for a defendant in court, second-guessing lexical or grammatical choices is the kiss of death. Doubting yourself, thinking and re-thinking whether you made the right choice, will make you lose track of the source language discourse, and it will also make you sound incoherent when you finally manage to catch up. In the end you will be very unhappy because instead of doing the excellent job you set out to do, you ended up with a mediocre performance at best.

If you are an excellent translator and think that is enough to become a certified interpreter… think again! You will have to reprogram your brain to act quickly, to trust your own instincts, and to give yourself a pass when you can’t find the perfect word but you can find a pretty darn good alternative. You will have to break the habit of questioning every translation decision you make, and learn to be assertive once you do make a choice. An informed and educated choice, that is.

Of course, translators and interpreters actually do have a lot in common, and research is a cornerstone for both undertakings. Interpreters learn to build on that research, knowing there can always be a better word or phrase out there, but not letting that knowledge paralyze them, and certainly not falling prey to the second-guessing curse. Interpreters who start to second-guess themselves out loud sound like they do not know what they are doing. Giving one word as an equivalent from source to target language and then changing it because you think you found a better one right away only makes you look incompetent. In the world of interpreters, you make a decision and you stick to it. You move on, or you eat dust because no one is stopping to wait for you.


  1. Athena Matilsky says:


    I love this! Our fields collide, combine and differ in such interesting ways that it is sometimes difficult to verbalize why an interpreter may have trouble translating and vice versa. You did so quite eloquently, and I loved reading your article.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Athena!

      I had a group of translators in a class recently who helped me “see” these points a bit more clearly and, thus, write about them.

      We just never stop learning, do we?

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