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Whilst I think court interpreters (have to) insist on being called interpreters (lest they fall into a different remuneration category) I suppose the situation is somewhat different for conference interpreters and their clients. I must confess that, over the years, I have become more or less used to people referring to us as translators (or "synchronous translators" or "Montanübersetzer;) and have more or less given up (I know what they mean and that is good enough for me). How about you? Do you insist on calling a spade a spade or do you adopt a pragmatic view (and, perhaps, do you have any nice retorts?)

asked 24 Apr '12, 13:46

Tanja's gravatar image


edited 24 Apr '12, 14:42

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

Hi Tanja,

I will give you a (personal) answer, which I'm sure is and will be strongly criticised by fellow interpreters.

I'm probably an interpreting rare species, because I really think that interpreters are translators, being "translation" the broader concept. Even if translators and interpreters distinguish between "translation" (written) and "interpretation" (oral), I don't think that this is totally correct. I agree with the definition of "interpreter":

one who translates orally for parties conversing in different languages

Source: Merriam-Webster

But I don't agree with the conceived definition of "translation" or "translator". While many professionals always mention that "translation" is always written, I would like to challenge this. Let me quote some definitions of "translation" and "translator" in different languages:

übersetzen: (schriftlich oder mündlich) in einer anderen Sprache [wortgetreu] wiedergeben

Source: DUDEN

translate: to change words into a different language

Note that "word" is not necessarily written.

translator: a person whose job is changing words, especially written words, into a different language

Source: CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARY. Note that "especially" is not "necessarily"

traducir. (Del lat. traducĕre, hacer pasar de un lugar a otro). 1. tr. Expresar en una lengua lo que está escrito o se ha expresado antes en otra. 2. tr. Convertir, mudar, trocar. 3. tr. Explicar, interpretar.

Source: DRAE

As you can see, there is no definition that states that "translation" is exclusively a written task. I would also go further and state that "translation" is a mental process, the result of which is subsequently expressed in the written or oral form.

So yes, I work as a conference interpreter, simultaneous interpreter or simultaneous translator. And I won't insist on being called "interpreter" because what I do in the booth is mentally translate words, concepts and ideas, which I then give tangible, speech form.

Let's not be whiter than white or more Catholic than the Pope.

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answered 26 Apr '12, 06:23

Delete's gravatar image

Delete ♦

edited 26 Apr '12, 06:26

...IMHO, this not about lexicology but about professional strategy, Nacho, and thank you very much for your contribution... which to my mind is what one should do to state one's views, rather than down-vote a question. We ARE the clergy in this regard, to stay with your Vatican simile :-) and therefore are not only entitled to decide what we want to call ourselves but also - and legitimately - to try our very best to have others adopt such terminology, all the more so if it serves a strategic purpose, which in my eyes it patently does.

(26 Apr '12, 10:36) msr

;-) I don't correct people as in "you're wrong, I'm not a translator", what I do, orally or in writing when replying, is using interpreter when they've used translator :-)... and if they pick up on it and ask, then I'll explain.

The funniest retort I remember was from a colleague who upon being asked whether she was the "instant translator" smiled and said "yes I am, all you need do is add water" :-)).

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answered 24 Apr '12, 19:36

msr's gravatar image


Yes, we actually translate but we offer a different type of translation that requieres different abilities than those of written translations. I do as Manuel does: I never correct but when speaking with the client I always say "interpreters", "interpreting", etc and I hope that the client will pick it up. I do think that we have to preach and educate our clients so next time they need us they know that they need an interpreter and not a translator.

Lovely anectote, Manuel :-)

(21 May '12, 06:33) Conrado

I've been dealing with this for over 15 years now and found that as long as they continue calling you for interpretation jobs, it doesn't matter if they call it translation or interpretation.

On the funny side, I was checking into a hotel for a conference and when the receptionist asked us who we were, of course I said we were "the interpreters". Then the receptionist, with a big smile on her face asked "So, who do you sing with?"

Have a great day and always the foresight to know if the mic is on or off before chastising someone. ;)

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answered 02 Jun '12, 07:59

Gabriel%20Aftenie's gravatar image

Gabriel Aftenie

Thank you, Nacho, for that very impressive piece of research and thank you, Manoel, for the lovely anecdote, I hope someone soon asks me whether I am the 'instant translator' so that I have my retort ready!!! I would certainly not correct the client but refer to our services as 'interpretation' and enquire whether there will be need for 'written translation' upon which I could refer the client to an appropriate professional

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answered 26 Apr '12, 12:40

Vicky%20Massa's gravatar image

Vicky Massa

When I was a staff member at the IMF, back in the 80’s, we were asked at some point to provide our own job description. At the time translators and interpreters had the same career profile (and identical wages). However, while translators did nothing but written translations, interpreters were actually recruited as interpreters/translators and were required to do both, oral interpreting and written translations. In order to differentiate ourselves from pure translators (and hopefully get these additional skills recognized), we used the definitions provided by the International Labor Organization. I do not have those at hand right now (perhaps some of you could find them on the web), but I do remember that the ILO made a clear distinction between (written) translators and (oral) interpreters.

When my group started working on its website, one of the first pages we wrote was a “WHO DOES WHAT” tab, where we clearly explained what a translator, an interpreter or a consultant-interpreter were.


We thought it was part of our effort to educate users and publicize our profession.

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answered 20 May '12, 16:00

Danielle's gravatar image


When confronted with the problem, I sometimes just say "interpreter, you know, headset and microphone", and that usually conveys the necessary image. One of the funniest incidents I've heard of happened to a colleague who arrived at the conference venue and asked the organisers where the booths and the interpreters were, and one of the organisers showed him the little device you use to choose the channel and said "we don't need any interpreters, we've got these".

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answered 10 Jun '12, 16:20

Sirpa's gravatar image


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question asked: 24 Apr '12, 13:46

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last updated: 10 Jun '12, 16:20

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