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Good Japanese Translators and Interpreters

To the uninitiated, the roles of translators and interpreters are often considered much of a muchness.

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Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear of an interpreter being referred to as “the translator”. Even when the two are distinguished, the difference may be thought of as simply one of medium. The interpreter uses a verbal medium, while a translator uses the written form. However, the truth is that it is very rare for the two jobs to be done by the same people and completely different skill sets are required.

Of course, there are similarities; both translators and interpreters must have an excellent knowledge of the source (i.e. English) language and target (i.e. Japanese) languages involved. However, whereas many excellent translators are not bilingual and only have a strong, passive knowledge of the source language, the best interpreters certainly need to be very close to bilingual. Additionally, an interpreter needs to have an excellent vocabulary in both languages and be able to produce them virtually instantly without recourse to dictionaries and online searches available to a translator. The interpreter must have excellent listening and oral skills, and the ability to take concise clear notes.

From the above description, it almost sounds as though an interpreter is just a turbocharged version of a Japanese translator, able to do instantly what takes a translator much longer. So, is it the case that whereas not all translators can be interpreters, all interpreters could probably be translators?  Not so. The interpreter needs to be able to paraphrase information from one language and express it clearly in another language, but, especially in the case of simultaneous interpreting, are not required to be able to express ideas with complex sentence structures. The translator on the other hand needs to be a writer, and this is something that does not necessarily come naturally to an interpreter.

A useful analogy may that of short-distance and long-distance running. The interpreter, like a sprinter, is required to produce the value of their work over a very short period of time (indeed, due to the stress of the job, most simultaneous interpreting is only performed in short bursts of 5-20 minutes or so, depending on the nature work). The translator, however, needs endurance to convert a document including complex sentences in the source language into a document that can be understood in the target language. Both jobs require excellent linguistic abilities, but essentially involve different skill sets.

About the Author
Simon Way is a contributing author to SAECULII YK, the owner of Translation Services Japan. Visit SAECULII for the latest professional case studies, articles and news by Japanese Translators

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