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A lot of people don’t seem to know the difference between a translator and an interpreter. In fact, many people don’t even know there is a difference and think the terms are synonymous. They’re not.

Dictionaries don’t seem to be very helpful either when it comes to explaining the difference. Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary of English has to say about it:

interpreter: a person who interprets, especially one who translates speech orally.
translator: a person who translates from one language into another, especially as a profession.

The Oxford Thesaurus of English only adds to the confusion by listing “interpreter” and “translator” as synonyms.

The Dutch Dikke Van Dale says:

tolk iem. die t.b.v. personen die elkaar niet verstaan het gesprokene mondeling of in gebarentaal overbrengt van de ene taal in de andere
synoniem: vertaler
vertaler iem. die vertaalt

The media are struggling with it too. On 22 August, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant wrote in an article titled “Proces Joran stagneert door ontbreken tolk” (correct) that a legal process was hampered because there was no “officiële vertaler” (incorrect) available. And the book The Translator is really about an interpreter. The title of the Dutch translation (De tolk) is correct by the way, undoubtedly because it was translated by a translator who does know the difference between an interpreter and a translator.

Confused? It’s quite simple actually:
An interpreter (Dutch: tolk) deals with oral speech, whereas a translator (Dutch: vertaler) deals with written text. Some language service providers offer both services, others only offer either interpreting or translation services.

So if you are looking for a language service provider, make sure you look for the right person: if you need someone to interpret the discussions during your meeting, look for an interpreter; if you need someone to translate the minutes of the meeting, look for a translator.

About this weblog

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture
-Anthony Burgess

To know another’s language and not his culture is a very good way to make a fluent fool of yourself
-Winston Brembeck


In this weblog, Percy Balemans writes about translation and language.

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