Translation and Interpreting: Separate Professions or One and the Same?

The Supreme Court and the interpreting profession weigh in on the answer, but they may have to agree to disagree.

By Barry S. Olsen and Katharine Allen

Seasoned interpreters and experienced translators alike are keenly aware of the different skill sets required for interpreting and translation. Both activities are included under the broader category of “language services” and have the basic purpose of transferring meaning from one language to another. As the 2010 Interpreting Marketplace Survey demonstrated, most interpreters are also translators and surely many translators have at times interpreted. Furthermore, hybrid activities performed by interpreters and translators, such as sight translation and transcription bridge the written and oral aspects of language to convey meaning from source to target languages. But does that mean that interpreting and translation are the same profession? A fair question, to be sure.

When it comes to acquiring formal expertise in either discipline, few, if any, would dispute that they require separate, specialized training–the core of what defines a profession. Two years of training in simultaneous and consecutive interpreting and sight translation do not a translator make. Similarly, years of study to master converting written text from one language to another does not an interpreter make.

But perhaps the more relevant question is, does it matter whether they are separate professions or not? And who should answer that question: Interpreters and translators—those who exercise these professions—or the Supreme Court of the United States?

In January, InterpretAmerica published Interpreting: Full Speed Ahead, Blazing a Trail Towards National Unity. The document, authored by Marjory Bancroft, is a summary of 5 professional identity workgroups held at the 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting in June 2011. Some 150 interpreters, language service providers, technology providers, association presidents, educators, trainers and researchers across the profession met and hashed out their views on 5 topics central to interpreting: professional associations; certification; training and education; legal/advocacy; and technology. (To download, go to

To the surprise of many, a thorough study of the discussions revealed a high degree of consensus, regardless of whether participants came from conference or community interpreting, or were professional association leaders or language service providers. Specifically, most want a single umbrella professional association to represent interpreting. Most want a generalist entry-level interpreter certification. And most think technology must be better integrated into and embraced by the profession.

One conclusion from the discussion was clear—those involved in interpreting definitely see it as a profession distinct from any other, with all the same requirements and components as any profession, such as medicine, journalism, or teaching.

So how does the United States Supreme Court figure into this discussion? On February 21, 2012, the highest court of the land will hear arguments in Kouichi Taniguchi vs. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd to answer the question of “whether costs incurred in translating written documents are “compensation of interpreters” for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6).”

This case concerns the definition of the term “interpreters” in 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6), which permits the taxing of the “compensation of interpreters” as costs in the federal courts. The parties dispute the definition of the term “interpreter” under this statute, and whether “interpreter” should be limited to oral services (as Petitioner argues), or encompass written document translation services as well (as Respondent argues). 1

The specific case, and the section or U.S. Code referenced, might be over money, but the question it poses strikes at the heart of the relatively new and still fragile infrastructure both interpreting and translation have built in the United States.

We all know that confusion and ignorance about translation and interpreting abound. Indeed, the lack of awareness about what we do is so profound that even the 9th Circuit Court decision of this case, on appeal now before the Supreme Court, relied upon dictionary definitions to justify lumping the two activities under one category. And in recent professional listserv discussions reacting to this case, highly respected colleagues have argued the blurring of the lines between the two, especially when it comes to what we are actually asked to do in the workplace versus what we are trained for.

If the Supreme Court sides with the view that there is no fundamental difference between the two activities, where does that leave interpreting and translation as professions? What do we say to the many who are working to raise quality standards, define training standards, and establish both generalist and specialist certifications? How do medical, legal and community interpreter trainers teach limits around whether and when they should translate written discharge instructions, consent forms or complex legal and medical documents? What basis will we have for determining proper wage and workplace agreements, if the highest court in the land decides there is no fundamental difference between translation and interpreting?

On the other hand, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the petitioner’s view that “compensation of interpreters” does not include written document translation, does that mean we can finally put to rest the argument about whether they are fundamentally two separate activities? And does this mean that there will be legal precedent to cite when explaining the difference between translation and interpreting? Or will rapid technological advances make the distinction between written and spoken communication a moot point?

Only time will tell. Amicus briefs have been filed by translators and interpreters in support of both the petitioner and the respondent. Links to these briefs are available at You can conduct your own review of the arguments pro and con as we await what will surely become a seminal verdict for our profession(s).


1 Brief of Amicus Curiae: Interpreting and Translation Professors in Support of Petitioner, Kouichi  Taniguchi Vs. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd, Supreme Court Of The United States, p 17.

0 thoughts on “Translation and Interpreting: Separate Professions or One and the Same?”

  1. Gio says:

    The case is not about whether there is a difference between interpreter and translation as professions, but as line items in an itemized billing system, as they apply to a very specific code (28 U.S.C. § 1920(6)).

    I recall hiring a maid who refused to help me organize: that was not part of “cleaning,” she claimed.

    This will have an impact on how the courts carry out their billing. It should not have any impact on our professions. Here come the lawyers again complicating things…

  2. Barry says:

    Hi Gio,

    In the strictest sense, you are correct. This case is not about the difference between translation and interpreting. It is about MONEY. What services can be “taxed” to the losing party to a lawsuit. This particular provision, which refers only to “compensation of interpreters” has been used to cover both written translation and interpreting. The lawyers finally saw that the provision was poorly drafted and jumped on the opportunity to clarify what interpreting is. The Supreme Court felt is was worth hearing too.

    It is my hope that the lawyers, in this instance, will help clarify rather than complicate things. In my humble opinion, the statute needs to be amended to include translators as well. Having this semantic discrepancy taken up by the Supreme Court will put the professions briefly in the spotlight and forever enshrined in Supreme Court precedent. If the justices decide that there is no different between the two activities, our PR efforts will be thrown on their heels and become an exercise in, “Yes, but…” If they rule that “compensation of interpreters” does not include “compensation for translators,” in the short term there will be some difficulty when it comes to billing for language services, but the legislation will be amended to reflect how practitioners see themselves.

    1. Gio says:

      Then, let’s support the Supreme Court so that they can come to an enlightened solution that will help resolve this issue once and for all.

      Thank you, Barry, and Rob, for your work in this issue.

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