Someone who asks, “Could you translate what that man is saying?” is understood. But the request is really to “interpret”.
The famed School of Translators of Toledo, 16th century
A translator converts the sense of a text from the language in which it’s written or printed, into another language; interpreters do something equivalent, but far from identical, with spoken language.
“Translate” comes from Latin: trans- (across, from one side to the other) and latus (carried); the Spanish (and numerous other languages’) equivalent, traducir, has a different Latin origin using ducere (to guide or lead).
The derivation of “interpret” is quite different: inter(between) and pret (business, negotiation, price), thus, an intermediary. A small but key point: the correct noun for the activity is “interpreting” (“interpretation” has other meanings that can cause confusion).
Translator and interpreter: two distinct professions, and not all practitioners of the one can do the other well. Some differences:
* Translation is usually unidirectional (into the translator’s native language), solitary, primarily intellectual-cognitive, takes much time but is not done in “real time”.
* Interpreting goes in both linguistic directions, is inherently social or public, less consciously cognitive than intuitive, must be done almost instantaneously and in the flow of the spoken language: a kind of performance.
Both are difficult, requiring much knowledge, experience, subtlety, and judgment.
As to the relationship with time, the translator is something like a painter or sculptor, the interpreter like an actor or dancer.
Copyright ©2013 by Pablo Julián Davis. All rights reserved. This essay was originally written for the 31 March 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as part of the weekly bilingual column, “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.