Posted by: patenttranslator | April 27, 2011

I Know the Difference Between a Translator and an Interpreter – Interpreting Is for People with Really Strong Nerves (and It Ain’t Me, Babe)

Unlike at least 250 million people in English speaking countries, I know the difference between an interpreter and a translator. Translators translate written documents and interpreters interpret spoken word from one language to another – for instance in a deposition where you answer lawyer’s questions. This difference seems to be always respected in some languages, for instance in Japanese (通訳 tsuyaku = interpreting, 翻訳 honyaku = translating), but not in English. Translators love to lament this dire status quo on blogs: we have to educate the public, they say. For some reason, translators take it very personally that the public at large is unaware of the fundamental difference between these two professions.

One reason why the situation may be so confusing is that some translators also interpret and I assume that some interpreters also translate sometime. I am a translator but I also used to interpret when I was younger. In fact my first job just after graduating with a degree in Japanese and English studies was interpreting for a whole month for a Czech-Japanese movie coproduction in Prague back in 1980. I did not really speak much Japanese back then but nobody seemed to have noticed because the Japanese actors and a Japanese film producer, who was my main client, were tolerant people. Also, since I was the only one there who spoke Japanese and Czech during the shooting of that film, they had no choice anyway. When the film director asked me to tell the actor to kiss the actress, I said in my impeccable Japanese:”kissu”.

Over the years, I mean decades, I had my share of interpreting jobs. I once interpreted in a German restaurant between a Pole and a German – I sort of spoke fake Polish back then and my German was not bad. The Polish guy wanted to beat up the German guy because he felt slighted for some reason and the German guy wanted to get out of the fight because he knew that the Polish guy, his name was Andrzej, was a boxer. Somehow I was able to diffuse that precarious situation because the German guy apologized (or so I said). That was probably my best interpreting job ever, based on the results. I did not get paid, of course, but I might have gotten beaten up too had I mishandled that job.

In the eighties I interpreted a few depositions, as well as one hearing at the Immigration Court in San Francisco. I absolutely hated that interpreting job. The judge was mumbling something incomprehensible under his breath while looking at me as if  I was a criminal or something. After that, I never accepted another interpreting job at immigration hearings, no matter how hungry for work I was.

Once I interpreted a deposition of a Japanese millionaire who was sold a race horse that did not win any race by some American horse breeder. So the Japanese buyer sued the American seller. The key moment of that deposition came when the Japanese buyer had to answer the question: “Why did you buy that horse?” He looked at the lawyer, gave it some thought for a few seconds, and then said:”国際仲間” (kokusai nakama), which, properly translated, means something like “out of a spirit of international camaraderie.” Since I did not do a very good job on that deposition, I realized that interpreting was not for me.

Unlike translating in the familiar comfort of your cozy home office, interpreting means a lot of pressure that you have to deal with in an unfamiliar environment, which can be outright hostile in some cases. Just after the fall of communism I was interpreting in Silicon Valley for a group of about 20 Czech and Polish government employees who were sent there to buy great American technology. There was no Polish interpreter. The guy who hired me knew that Czech is similar to Polish and that the Polish people there might be able to understand some of what I was saying in Czech. But there was no microphone. So he told me to speak loud enough so that the Poles could listen to me if they wanted to do that, but not so loud that I would be disturbing the Poles who perhaps understood some English and did not want to be disturbed by me. I swear to God, that was what that moron told me.

I think that was my last interpreting job. No, I’m sure that was it.

I did go to a few “on-site” translating jobs in Silicon Valley after that, which I found rather burdensome and stressful too, almost like interpreting. I had to drive 50 miles from Santa Rosa to Palo Alto and then spend 6 hours or so looking at a bunch of Japanese and German patents and describing them in English to patent lawyers. Every time when I had to open a dictionary I felt like an imposter. And then I had to drive 50 miles back again, fighting the traffic during the rush hour from San Francisco all the way to Petaluma, which was a very unfamiliar and unnerving feeling for me.

I don’t interpret anymore. Interpreting is for people who have really strong nerves. You have to deal with people in real time, and that can be very, very tricky. Most interpreters are in fact women because women are much tougher than men, of course.

I don’t know how they do it. I just don’t have the nerves for it anymore.


  1. Good post. Had me nodding all the way through. I’ve been translating from J to E since 1998 (freelance since 2005), and over the years have come to realise that I’m a much better translator than interpreter.

    The reasons for this are now pretty clear to me – I live in rural England, far from any Japanese community of any meaningful number, and few opportunities to speak Japanese present themselves, so my ability to speak Japanese fluently (as I used to) has diminished. I know this from the increasing frequency with which I struggle to remember everyday Japanese vocabulary. Patent translation isn’t that useful on a social level – few ordinary conversations relate to thermoplastic resins, transparent electrically conductive substrates or non-aqueous electrolytes.

    I now accept that this is the case, which is OK by me – I can earn more a good deal translating than interpreting anyway, and I get to be at home with my 2 year old most of the time. I just wish Japan was a bit nearer so I could visit more often and practice conversing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. People sometimes ask me why I don’t interpret as well as translate (DE>EN). But I know simply from interpreting both ways when my husband and I visit the American relatives that you could never pay me enough to interpret in real time for real clients. Add that to having to be physically present (I love my home office) and let’s just say I’m glad I never even thought about offering interpreting services.

    I’m perfectly happy to interpret informally, though. But when I see folks interpreting simultaneously, I’m in awe. I often have to “pause” the conversation when I’m interpreting to clarify issues, and even just waiting for a dependent German clause to end throws me right off the thread.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I hope you can laugh about them now.


    • Thanks for sharing your experiences. I hope you can laugh about them now.

      Yes, I can. And so can you!


  3. “I live in rural England, far from any Japanese community of any meaningful number, and few opportunities to speak Japanese present themselves, so my ability to speak Japanese fluently (as I used to) has diminished”.

    I live in a pretty big town close to the largest city in Virginia (Virginia Beach), but our neighbors and friends only speak English and a few Spanish. I try to watch TV in German or French to keep up with the spoken language. I used to have NHK as well but it’s 20 dollars a month and most of the programs are pretty boring, so we dropped it. If I watch news on TV, it’s usually in German or in French, mostly for the languages but also for the content.

    I do speak a strange mixture of Japanese and English with my wife. When I say something to her in Japanese, she responds in English, then switches to Japanese, depending on the subject (for instance if it is about food), then back to English with some Japanese words in it, etc. When she speaks English, she uses particles in her English like “yo”, “ne”, “dattte”, etc., without realizing it, even with people who speak only English. Our kids got used to it but I don’t know about other people.

    When she talks about our neighbors (usually complaining about something they do), she always speaks in Japanese so that we would not be overheard, even in the house where nobody can possibly hear us.

    It’s automatic with her.

    Many years ago I used to have a German girlfriend in Prague who grew up in Bohemia in a German family. Her family spoke the same kind of German-Czech mixture at home that I speak now with my wife, except that it’s a Japanese-English mixture in our case.


  4. LOL, so true.
    I was never paid for my last interpreting job for a small IT company last year: 4 days at CEBit in Hannover. While there, I walked something like 10 km a day and had all my meals out etc. On the last day, I started having a slight stomach ache that turned into an acute gastroenteritis and utterly ruined my ski holiday, which was booked right afterwards. I couldn’t eat anything worth the name of food for almost 2 months.
    I’ll positively never forget it 😀


  5. Sorry to hear about your experience.

    Unfortunately, some people think that interpreters should work for free or next to nothing (80 dollars and a T-shirt), see Eco Translator’s blog below.


    • True. I once came across an ad where a company was looking for a Chinese/German interpreter specialized in solar energy for a conference. They offered 20 EUR/h – travel expenses were not included. 🙂


      • All interpreters should work for free in order to promote world peace, understanding between nations and the spirit of international camaraderie.

        20 Euros and hour and/or a T-shirt is really almost too generous.


  6. Speaking of “interpreting” – don’t really care for the Lee’s version of a great Dylan song. Anyway, it’s good to hear that translators complain about being confused with interpreters; I’ve heard the same from interpreters for so long. My solution was to stop noticing and get on with the job.


  7. I know, that girl can’t sing.

    I was looking for Dylan’s version or for the version by the Turtles on you tube but I could not find anything that would have acceptable sound and video quality because the song is so old.

    So I decided that this slightly out of tune version was actually a fitting version given the context.


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