Who can convert a text from one language to another? Who can solve the language barrier between a foreign speaker and a local audience? What is the process of converting an instructional video into text? Translation vs Transcription vs Interpretation carry specific characteristics. Let’s take a look at them and what each entails.

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This post was updated on March 2021


In solving the differences between Translation vs Transcription vs Interpretation, a good look must be given to Translation.  For starters, translation basically means taking text written in one language (called the source language) and writing it in another language (called the target language).

Challenges in Translation

Perhaps the greatest challenge of translation is maintaining (1) precision and (2) naturalness. This tension has often been expressed as one between fidelity and transparency. 17th century French writer Gilles Ménage famously said of the translations of his peer Perrot Nicolas d’Ablancourt: “They remind me of a woman whom I greatly loved in Tours, who was beautiful but unfaithful.” Ménage coined the phrase “les belles infidèles” to suggest that translations could be precise and faithful to the source language or they could sound natural and be beautiful, but perhaps not both.

This tension is the most significant in translations. Evidently, it is more pronounced or less so, depending on what is being translated. A legal translation of a contract, for instance, will seek precision above all else even if the translation does not sound very beautiful. On the contrary, a translation of a screenplay for an anime film, for example, will have to be precise, of course, but tremendous efforts must be made to make it sound great and natural for an audience.

What Makes a Great Translator?

Behind a great translation is a great translator. What goes into making a great translator? Some abilities and talents come immediately to mind:

  • Great knowledge of the source language and target language comes first. A translator must know the ins and outs of the languages.
  • Familiarity with the subject matter of the text. A legal translation by a translator with experience in the legal world will be best. Similarly, a translation of an anime screenplay by a translator who is also a fan of anime will be best too.
  • A broad cultural knowledge. A translator of literature will hopefully love literature but also know the country from where it originates and will hopefully have traveled there too. Indeed, a good translator is not only bilingual but bicultural.
  • A keen instinct. This is developed with experience and it is all about knowing when to translate literally, and keep precision, and when to stress naturalness.

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Certifications for a Translator

In certain countries, translators must have a certain official credential, before being able to work. The United States, however, has no universal certification body for translation and interpretation. What translators and interpreters may do is get certifications in a particular field, which may help show that they have a level of competency.

There is the possibility, for instance, of getting certified by the American Translators Association (ATA), which has a series of stringent requirements. Another possibility is to get certified by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators; this one, in particular, is designed for professionals who want to work in the legal field. Finally, there is the possibility of being certified by the National Board of Certified Medical Interpreters (CMI), for those professionals interested in the medical world.

Technology in Translation

Because of the difficulty and time needed for translations, there is a desire to use technology to speed up the process or to replace human translators altogether.

  • CAT Tools: CAT stands for Computer Assisted Translation or Computer Aided Translation. Basically a CAT tool assists a human translator to facilitate the job of translating, but without translating as such.

The CAT tool simply helps to: (1) Compile a glossary so that specific words are translated the same way every single time; (2) Compile a translation memory, wherein the system recognizes phrases that have been previously translated and suggests the use of the previous translation; (3) Provide more comfort for the translator by maintaining original fonts, colors, diagrams etc. This is done by dividing the whole text into ‘segments’ which are more easily manageable.

Note that these glossaries and translation memories can then be used in another project and thus preserve uniformity.

  • Machine Translations: Technology has taken great strides in creating machine translators, which may substitute a human translator altogether. Google Translate is an example of this technology. The problem with this sort of translation is that it lacks the human touch to smooth it out. Very often, there are too many errors with things like tone, nuance, idiomatic language, humor and cultural peculiarities.

Translation Transcription Interpretation Changes In Language Person



In the Translation vs Transcription vs Interpretation continuum, we find that Interpretation is a very distinct process, undoubtedly related to translation but something quite different. It is basically about rendering a first and final translation, based on a simple one-time exposure to a source language. If translation deals primarily with text, interpretation basically deals with speech and the spoken word.

Simultaneous interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting means interpreting at the time of the exposure to the source language and in real-time, so to speak. An example of this is interpretation done at a conference. The interpreter will sit in a booth, interpreting what the speaker of the conference is saying on the stage. This interpretation is being rendered to the audience via audio equipment in real-time. Usually, the interpreter will not even take notes, since the interpreting is done fast, indeed immediately.

Consecutive interpreting

Consecutive interpreting is interpreting which is done at breaks from the exposure to the source language. A typical example of this would involve an interpreter who is interpreting the same conference as in the previous example but instead of doing so simultaneously, only does so in specific breaks. Usually, the interpreter will sit or stand next to the person who is giving the conference or speech. Most interpreters prefer to take notes when doing this sort of interpreting.

Whispering or ‘chuchotage’

Another form of interpretation is whispering, also called ‘chuchotage’ in French. Basically what goes on here is that the interpreter sits next to the person who needs to listen to what the speaker is saying and translates only for this one person. The interpreter quite literally whispers the interpretation.

Where is Interpreting Used?

Simultaneous interpretation is the most common type of interpreting. Consecutive interpretation has lost a lot of ground to simultaneous interpretation and ‘chuchotage’ has a very specific use. The most common places where interpreting, in general, is used are:

  • Conferences of all types.
  • Judicial settings (wherever a legal proceeding takes place).
  • Medical environments, when there is need for communication between healthcare personnel and a patient.

Furthermore, there are many methods of delivery of interpretations. These may be on-site, via telephone, or video.

Tricks of the Trade in Interpretation

There are several challenges in interpretation because it is going on in real-time and sometimes at breakneck speed. By its very name, interpretation is about interpreting and is not quite the same thing as translation. Here are some tips of the trade:

  1. Salami technique: Also called segmentation. What this basically means is taking fast, convoluted, complex phrases uttered by the speaker and rendering them into shorter, ordered and clearer ones. Evidently, this shows the true nature of interpretation in that it is not exactly a translation per se. The idea of this technique is to be able to keep up with fast speakers and with complex topics. This technique evidently demands a good short-term memory.
  2. Anticipation: Sometimes, a seasoned interpreter will be able to anticipate what a speaker will say. For this, it is necessary to have familiarity with the topic, experience in the interpreting booth, practice and tremendous attention to detail. The interpreter may thus start interpreting connecting phrases and words which will make the interpretation flow faster.
  3. Increasing decalage:Decalage’ is the time between the beginning of the speech that is being interpreted, and the beginning of the interpretation itself. A longer decalage means being able to gather more context before rendering the interpretation to the audience, thus permitting the practice of segmentation or whatever may be necessary for a great interpretation.

Translation Transcription Interpretation Differences in Text


Finally, in our examination of the Translation vs Transcription vs Interpretation gamut, we find transcription. Transcription is the process of converting speech or audio into a written text. It is used when it is necessary to convert audio-only programs on radio or podcasts for people who perhaps are deaf, for example.

Types of Transcriptions

There are different ways to present a transcription: via closed captions (time-coded to a video itself) or with a plain normal transcript of the text.

There are two main types of transcription too: verbatim and clean-read transcriptions. Verbatim basically means transcribing a text word by word. This includes, naturally, all that a speaker is saying, including words such as “um”, mistakes, slang words that are not easily understandable by a listener etc. A clean-read, on the other hand, is a transcription that excludes these errors and fillers.

Who does Transcriptions?

Transcriptions can be done in-house or by a professional provider. In-house transcriptions may be cumbersome and time-consuming though. Technology now permits the use of Automatic Speech Recognition Software (ASR). Basically what this does is jumpstart the process of transcription, meaning that ASR will transcribe but with many errors that must then be smoothed out by a human transcriber.

Professional transcription services, on the other hand, are the most reliable option for people or companies who are creating large-scale projects. Moreover, this sort of service will usually also return files in any output format requested, making it quite convenient.

If you need a top-quality transcription, get in touch with us!

Legal Requirements

There are specific legal requirements established in the United States regarding transcriptions for disabled people. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) establishes a series of anti-discrimination provisions. It requires that an equivalent experience be made available for deaf or hard of hearing people. Thus, a simple text transcription will not necessarily do the trick because the viewer is still not able to follow along. Therefore, that is the importance of closed captions which do permit a viewer to watch the images and text in sync one with the other.

There are other legal requirements of note. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA standards. This means that closed captioning must be included in all pre-recorded live video.

Benefits of Transcription

Transcription, particularly close captioning, clearly communicates a spoken message for people who may have impaired hearing.

Also, transcripts are able to provide better user experience to visitors of a website, with an alternative way to interact with video or audio. Ultimately, having proper transcriptions will improve time spent on the site.

Furthermore, SEO improves because search engines, unable to crawl video or audio, will be able to do so on transcripts. Users will be able to find these things online as it is more searchable. Moreover, the webpage will rank better, and for more keywords.

Finally, there are interactive transcripts too. Basically what these are is another way in which a user may engage with a video. Each word of the transcript acts as a link, which takes the user to that particular moment in the video.


Translation vs Transcription vs Interpretation: what’s the last word? 

Translation concerns itself with texts and seeks to preserve precision and hopefully the beauty and flair of the original document.

Interpretation is all about the spoken word. It may be simultaneous, consecutive or whispered. It is different from a translation due to the challenge of facing a real interaction or speech at considerable speed.

Finally, transcription converts speech or audio into text. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may benefit from good transcriptions. A webpage with a lot of video content would do well to transcribe this material and benefit from improvements in SEO.

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