Sunday, October 18, 2009

Can Interpretation be called Translation?

JD-Glasgow, in his comment on my August 27 posting, says that the terms translation and interpretation should not be confused and they aren’t interchangeable.

That’s the usual opinion of professional translators and interpreters and of the people who train them. Hence there are many professional Associations of Translators and Interpreters and many Schools of Translation and Interpretation; and at worldwide level there’s the International Federation of Translators on the one hand (though it actually has some interpreter members and committees) and the International Association of Conference Interpreters (strictly for interpreters) on the other.

Meanwhile, general language usage is somewhat different. There, there isn’t a sharp distinction between translating and interpreting. A good example of the general language usage is to be seen on TV: when interpretation is being used, a message often flashes over the screen image, “Voice of Translator”. This irks the professionals – a TV producer told me they’re the only viewers who complain – but they should simply recognize that the media address the public in a different ‘register’ from theirs.

Now let’s turn to Natural Translation and Native Translation. I submit that for purposes of translation theory and research, translation has two senses like in general language. In a broad sense it can mean translating in any medium: written, spoken or signed. More specifically, it’s used to mean the written sort, and then the oral and signed sort is called interpreting to distinguish it. It would be nice if we had a hypernym whose meaning was unequivocally ‘translation as a whole’, but we don’t. The Germans and Austrians have tried by introducing Translation to cover both Übersetzung (translation) and Dolmetschen (interpretation), as in Zentrum für Translationswissenschaft at the University of Vienna. It began in what was at that time East Germany; I first heard it in Leipzig in 1969 from Otto Kade, the coiner of Translationswissenschaft. But anyway that’s German. For the time being, English speakers are left to cope with a 'lexical gap'.


International Federation of Translators.

International Association of Conference Interpreters.

Zentrum für Translationswissenschaft.

Heidemarie Zalevsky. Über die Sprache hinaus (In memoriam Otto Kade). In Gerd Wotjak (ed.), Quo vadis Traductologie? Ein halbes Jahrhundert universitäre Ausbildung von Dolmetschern und Übersetzern in Leipzig, Frank & Timme, Berlin, 2007.


  1. Wow, I didn't realise I was that thought-provoking! ;-)
    To be honest, in one of my upcoming articles, I will suggest that Translation (note the capital T) be used as a term to cover both translation and interpreting, especially given that there do share some commonalities. As both a T and an I, I guess that the annoyance really stems from the fact that traditionally, written translation has been seen as the "higher art." Compare the number of books on Bible translation with the number on sermon interpreting. Compare the materials available to help translators and those that can help interpreters.

    So, while translation has been the subject of debate, philosophy and discussion for years, interpreting is, as you have noticed, often seen as something that any bilingual can do. Just about the only way to get noticed is to get narky and insist that "I am an interpreter; not a translator." It may be childish but it just might work.

    On the other hand, all that narkiness might actually be counter-productive and make people feel that we are introducing a distinction where none might exist. Is there really a difference between working with spoken language and working with written language? My only suggestion for people who think this is to given them a translation task and an interpreting task and interview them afterwards!