Interpretation vs. Translation: Which Is Right For Your Business? When thinking about ways to make international business easier, the legend of the Tower of Babel often springs to mind: Wouldn't it be easier if we all spoke one language?

By Maria Elena-Kassab

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


When thinking about ways to make international business easier, the legend of the Tower of Babel often springs to mind: Wouldn't it be easier if we all spoke one language? Unfortunately for the business world –and fortunately for cultural diversity – that is not the case, even though some languages (such as English) are spoken more or less fluently by a growing number of businesspeople. When the language barrier becomes too great, the only solution is to transfer information from one language to another, by way of a translator or an interpreter.

And here lies the one question people often forget to ask themselves: Does your business need translation services or do it need interpretation services? What is the difference between an interpreter and a translator, what do they do, and when should you turn to one and not the other?

As a general rule, translators and interpreters both start off at the same point in university usually taking the same courses for the first three to four years. After earning a BA in Languages, they are split. The translators keep taking translation classes for two years to earn a MA in Languages and a Translator's Diploma. Those who want to become interpreters have to pass an entrance exam, performing oral tasks before a jury- they are tested for speed of thought under stress, personal culture, and language skills; they then take oral translation classes and earn their MA in Languages, and an Interpreter's Diploma.

What's the difference?

While both translators and interpreters work with languages their tasks differ: Translators convert written material from one language (the source language) to another (the target language), while interpreters perform the same task orally. It is imperative to understand that most interpreters do translation work, but translators are not interpreters. It takes training and experience to be able to perform simultaneous interpretation. It is also necessary to understand that some translators become highly specialized in a certain field of work, which makes them the best choice for specific types of translation such as sensitive legal subjects or precise medical reports. Some translators do liaison interpretation, which ensures communication between two people or among a small group. However, some translators have posed as simultaneous interpreters, only to come into the booth and flounder about, unable to keep up with a speaker.

Translators In most cases, translators work on various types of written documents including legal and government-issued paperwork (birth certificates, ID cards, court transcripts), literature (novels, manuals), and in creative spaces (movie subtitling), and mediums like newspapers, news agencies, websites… They work within deadlines, generally charge their clients per word or per page, and can become sworn translators to work on official documents.

Interpreters There are two main types of interpretation: simultaneous (usually performed with interpreting equipment), and consecutive (the interpreter listens to a portion of a speech and then interprets it as the speaker waits in silence). Interpreters usually work in conferences, workshops, international meetings or summits, often traveling constantly for work. They charge per day, and a client will need to pay for their travel and accommodations in the event that the booking requires it.

"But I can speak French, can't I be an interpreter?"

A lot of people all over the world speak more than one language, but they cannot all translate from one of these languages into another. For quality work, one must request the services of someone with a degree in translation or interpretation, and it is sometimes necessary to seek out someone who specializes in a certain field. It is completely irrational to expect a translator or an interpreter to be fluent in every language spoken on the planet. In the GCC, English and Arabic are the two most requested languages, where as In North Africa French takes precedence in some transactions. In Lebanon, translators and interpreters work into and from, Arabic, French, and English. Some of them learn an extra language and work that into their language combinations. Arabic is not that high on the list of languages requested in Europe, and in parallel, Bulgarian, for example, is not highly requested in the Arab world.

Bidding wars

When contacted by a client, both translators and interpreters can offer bids, and the main problem here lies within fee-slashing. In an effort to win over a client –and often in the context of professional rivalry, which can become quite bitter– translators and interpreters will slash their fees and lower their prices ridiculously. This can become a problem when the work delivered is of low quality (on par with the slashed prices). It can also become a problem when clients become used to a certain lower price given by some, and refuse to pay the regular fees for higher-quality work, a problem slowly spreading throughout the MENA region.

What not to expect from your translator or interpreter

Contrary to popular belief, not all interpreters look like Nicole Kidman in 2005 blockbuster, The Interpreter. They don't uncover assassination plots, and they don't necessarily save the world. Joking aside, you do need to be aware that translators are not human dictionaries. They need context before they can execute word translation, because a term changes meanings depending on whether or not it came from a legal document or a book about magical slippers. Another common misconception? All interpreters work for the UN- this is not true. They often work as freelancers, and have short-term contracts with clients from various international, regional, and local organizations and companies, and have other jobs teaching languages, translation or interpretation. You should also be aware that not all translators work in subtitling, and not all translators are sworn translators with their own translation offices. They also often work as freelancers, taking on other jobs, such as teaching.

Maria Elena-Kassab is a freelance conference interpreter and translator, working with clients across the MENA region in English, Arabic, and French. Kassab is also a published writer in both English and Arabic publications, with her portfolio including print and web mass mediums.  

Related Topics

Business Culture

What Is the 'Coffee Cup Test'? Watch Out For This Tricky Interview Trend.

Some people find this recent hiring trend impractical, while others think it's a sign of character. Either way, here's what you should know about it.

Starting a Business

5 Solopreneur Mindset Shifts and Why They're Critical to Your Success

As a solopreneur, don't reinvent the wheel or start from scratch. You are here because you have two things: an idea and passion.

Personal Finance

5 Entrepreneurial Mindset Principles That Empower Financial Literacy

Adopting the right mindset is key to financial literacy. Follow these five guiding principles to enhance your understanding of wealth creation and growth.

Business Ideas

105 Service Businesses to Start Today

With this many ideas to choose from, you have no excuse not to get started today with your own service business.

Side Hustle

Passive Income 101: A Beginner's Guide to Building Wealth on Autopilot

Unveiling the power of passive income for everyone.