Translation Versus Interpretation

Translation Versus Interpretation

Looking up at the sky, you can pretend that you can draw lines between the stars and discover different shapes. Our obsession with watching stars can be traced to ancient times, when mythology was used to create stories about them. One of the best known constellations is Gemini, the third astrological sign in the zodiac. If you stare at it, you can identify the silhouette of the brothers; it looks as if one was holding the other’s shoulder. According to classic Greek literature, they are Castor and Pollux, the inseparable twins; their mother was Leda, but they had different fathers: Castor was the son of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, and Pollux was fathered by Zeus, which made him immortal. The Dioskuoroi, as they were also known, looked the same, but they had different abilities. Castor tamed horses and he was a great rider; Pollux became a virtuous warrior. This story may account for the universal fascination with duality. Everything may have nuances, and that is why we want to understand diversity, the changing faces, good and evil, black and white.

The same happens when we talk about translation and interpretation: despite their differences, both professions were born from the same interest in communication and in establishing connections with people who speak different languages. Since both disciplines are based on interlingual contact, there is great confusion around them, and, more often than not, they become increasingly blurred in our collective imagination. Therefore, it is relevant to first clarify that the practice of these activities requires very distinct skills, just like those possessed by the Dioskuoroi.

Translators rewrite texts from a source language to a target language, and they must have a reasonable amount of time to produce a well written text. On the other hand, interpreters enable communication amongst people who do not speak the same languages, and, most of the time, they do this simultaneously. If we frame this within the myth of the twins, we could say that translators are like Castor, the quiet, thoughtful tamer, for translation is an individual activity that must take into account specifications by a client, attention to written expression, and an eye for detail. Meanwhile, interpreters identify themselves with Pollux, the energetic, swift fighter, because they face interaction amongst individuals or groups of people; they need to have the intellectual and verbal strategies that are needed to produce seamless, accurate conversations, almost immediately.

If that is not enough to understand the different, we may also think about some other features. To work with texts, translators need to be much more accurate because a target text could always be compared to a source text; this is the moment when changes and errors may be noticed. When you are working as an interpreter, anyway, some turns, changes, or omissions are allowed, for time limits force the interpreter to resort to adaptations and amendments so that so as not to lose track of what is being interpreted; it is a gargantuan feat that only professionals can perform. Overall, interpretation is more dynamic, and it depends on spoken language, whereas translation requires attention and an advanced knowledge of the written language. Just like Castor and Pollux with their mother Leda, translation and interpretation were born from the same source: linguistic knowledge. They are twin disciplines, but they will never be identical.

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