Interpreter vs. Translator: What's the Difference?

Updated June 21, 2023

If you enjoy learning foreign languages and cultural norms, a career as an interpreter or translator may be ideal. Interpreters and translators both work in the linguistics field, but they perform different duties and use different skills. Understanding how these professions differ can help you decide which career aligns best with your interests, training and skills.

In this article, we discuss what interpreters and translators are, the training and abilities they use in their respective roles and their usual salaries.

Related: 13 Best Careers for Multilingual Professionals

What is an interpreter?

An interpreter is a linguist expert who translates verbal communication from one language to another. Their translations help speakers and listeners understand the conversation and allow them to share messages. The primary responsibilities of an interpreter include the following:

  • Listening to a message spoken in one language

  • Understanding the context of the message

  • Translating the message into another language

  • Speaking the translated message to one or more listeners

Related: How To Become an Interpreter (With Examples and Tips)

What is a translator?

A translator is a linguistic expert who translates written communication from one language to another. The primary responsibilities of a translator include the following:

  • Analyzing the context of the text

  • Conducting research on the culture and dialects of the foreign language

  • Taking notes on the text to prepare for translation

  • Writing translations to meet deadlines

  • Proofreading the translation for accuracy and clarity

Related: How To Become a Translator (Steps, Duties and Salary)

Interpreter vs. translator

Although both interpreters and translators convey messages in foreign languages, their professions differ in the following ways:

Delivery method

Interpreters and translators deliver their translations in different formats. Interpreters use speech to interpret and translate verbal communication. Translators use writing to interpret and translate written communication. Interpreters' and translators' response times also contrast. For example, interpreters translate words right after someone speaks, which allows the conversation to flow easily. Translators have extra time to complete and present their work, where they cross-reference their interpretations and review their writings.

Related: Career as a Translator: Qualifications and 8 Types of Jobs

Work environment

Interpreters and translators work in different professional settings. People who know multiple languages can be in high demand depending on the country and the language they speak. Organizations that typically employ them include the following:


Some educational institutions may have student populations who speak different languages, such as Spanish and English. College students, for instance, may pursue secondary education in foreign countries. Interpreters may work in schools to facilitate communication between students and educators.

Legal settings

Interpreters translate questions and responses for legal proceedings in law firms and courtrooms. For instance, during a court trial, an interpreter may translate the judge's instructions into another language for defendants to understand, or they may translate witness testimonies for the jury. 


Patients in hospitals and other healthcare facilities may speak different languages than the medical staff. Interpreters translate information from physicians, such as diagnoses and treatment plans to patients. They also translate information from patients, such as medical history and concerns, to physicians.


Interpreters present their translations during meetings with audiences that speak different languages. For example, during a press conference, an interpreter may translate messages from the speaker to the audience and vice versa.

Customer service centers

Interpreters may answer calls from customers who speak different languages so company employees can understand their questions and concerns.

Manufacturing companies

Translators work with manufacturers to write product labels and instructions in different languages. For example, a candy bar maker that ships its product internationally uses translators to produce packaging information in the primary language for each country's market.


Publishers hire translators to convert books and other publications into other languages. This allows them to publish materials for international audiences, increasing sales worldwide.

Pharmaceutical companies

Pharmaceutical companies employ translators to translate the labels on medications into other languages. Translators may write instructions for how to take medication and when to refill prescriptions.

Educational institutions

Translators may write cross-cultural materials for students, such as textbooks, children's books and other educational resources. They may also work in schools to convert administrative documents, such as emergency contact information.

Television and movie production

Translators may use their expertise to write closed captioning for television and media programs. Television and film production companies and streaming platforms may hire translators.

Educational background

To become an interpreter, you may require the following credentials:


Both translators and interpreters need to be fluent in at least two languages. Whether completing written or verbal translations, both professions require bilingual capabilities. Being fluent in multiple languages may boost both professionals' career opportunities and pay.

Bachelor's degree

Having a bachelor's degree in a foreign language can expand your job opportunities and increase your earning potential. Although rarely required, employers may prefer candidates with four-year degrees in a foreign language.

Specialized certification

With a bachelor's degree, individuals can pursue a certification to work in a specialized setting, such as the medical field or legal sector. Interpreters can also earn certifications from the American Translators Association or the National Association for Interpretation. Translators can earn the Certified Translator endorsement from the American Translators Association, which requires a certification exam and work experience. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators and the International Medical Interpreters Association also offer certifications.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Related: 12 Jobs You Can Get With a Language Bachelor's Degree

Resources and materials

Interpreters and translators may use a variety of materials to help others understand verbal or written communication in another language. As they complete their job duties, translators may be able to reference various materials, including language dictionaries, to assist them. Alternatively, interpreters translate instantly and don't have time to reference any resources before providing listeners with an interpretation of another speaker's words. While both professions require individuals to understand two or more languages in-depth, interpreters convey meaning more rapidly.


Interpreters and translators may use the following skills in their roles:

Active listening

Interpreters need to hear and comprehend the words of one language to translate the words into another language effectively. Every word is necessary to grasp the meaning and context, and with active listening, interpreters can understand the words quickly and share them with the other party.


Translators use reference materials, such as dictionaries, to translate meaning between languages. They research the cultures of the language they're translating, which may include customs and communication styles.

Intercultural communication

Interpreters may interact with people from different cultural backgrounds. This means it's important that they adopt nonverbal and verbal communication skills that coincide with the culture to better understand an individual's verbal and nonverbal communication cues.

Related: Intercultural Skills: Definition and Examples

Public speaking

When interpreting languages for a large group of people, interpreters may require strong public-speaking skills to emphasize points and engage the audience with their messages. This skill also helps them adjust their speaking pace so the target audiences can follow the conversation.

Knowledge of diverse cultures

Cultures around the world assign different meanings to words. Translators rely on their cultural knowledge to choose words and phrases that accurately convey the author's intended message.

Written communication

Each language uses its own syntax and has different colloquialisms, so it's important for translators to use their written communication skills to create texts that readers in another language can understand.

Critical thinking

Interpreters use critical thinking skills to evaluate how to translate meanings. When they hear one language, they consider the context of the message and what words to use to deliver the same message in another language.

Knowledge of different dialects

Many languages have different dialects, such as English and Mandarin. This requires translators and interpreters to be familiar with various dialects to handle their jobs quickly and effectively.


Translators use computer-assisted translation (CAT) programs to ensure their writing is accurate. Translators also use computer programs to type and organize their work in spreadsheets and illustrations.

Related: Translator Skills: Definition and Examples

Salary and job outlook

The national average salary of an interpreter is $52,127 per year. They may receive compensation at an hourly or daily rate. Their specialty and experience may influence their income. For example, a courtroom interpreter with 10 years of experience may earn more than an interpreter who recently entered the field and works in an elementary school.

Translators earn a national average salary of $54,253 per year. For their services, they may charge a fixed rate for every page or word they translate. The credentials of translators may also influence their income. For instance, a translator with a specialized certification may earn more than a translator without one.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the translator and interpreter occupations are expected to grow by 20% from 2021 to 2031, which is higher than the rate for other occupations. As globalization continues, people who speak languages other than English may arrive in the United States, which increases the demand for individuals in this field.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.

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