Interpreter vs. Translator or my personality dilemma

I noticed that there’s a certain confusion between these two well-defined and different professions and, as my main education path concerned both of them and since they both fascinate and intrigue me for different reasons, I would like to share some insights and opinions with you.

The translator

A translator is someone with an extensive knowledge of at least 2 different languages (A and B). He/she translates from language A to B, meaning that he/she conveys the original message present in the text in language A into and equivalent in language B. The “juice” of the message shouldn’t change: we’re talking about “faithfulness to the text”. And translators, in this sense, have all the time and all the chances to be as faithful as possible, which means that they can consult plenty of sources (online and paper dictionaries, books and articles on the specific topic of the text he’s translating) and do a lot of thinking before coming up with the perfect solution. Undoubtedly, this job is tiring and exhausting: finding the perfect translation is not always possible, sometimes because some concepts and terms exist in one language but not in another.(read my article about untranslatable words here). But it’s always satisfying and rewarding to find the closest translation possible to the original.

The translator: a snapshot

The interpreter

As well as the translator, the interpreter is someone with an extensive knowledge of at least 2 different languages (A and B). He/she conveys the original message in language A into and equivalent in language B, this time in the oral form. The context is generally represented by conferences or meetings. Differently from the translator, the interpreter works at a very fast-pace, in real time. He/she has extremely little time to listen, memorise and reproduce the message into the target language. In the case of consecutive interpreting, the interpreter has the chance to listen to the speech (or portions of it) in its entirety, with the possibility to take notes (through a fascinating variety of symbols that he/she can only recognise) before conveying it in another language. In the case of simultaneous interpreting (think about the European Union), the interpreter listens and speaks at the same time, transferring “simultaneously” the message from language A into language B. It’s incredibly stressing and it requires lots of concentration, ability to anticipate and follow the train of thoughts of the speaker. The interpreter cannot exactly predict what will be said: it’s always a challenge and a leap of faith: therefore it’s fundamental to rely on an strong general knowledge, to be an expert (even if not in depth) of anything and to have steady nerves and a very calm and clear voice. No matter what interpreters will say: they must pretend they are leading the game and make all the others believe they know exactly what they are doing.

The interpreter: a snapshot

Two years ago, when I terminated my bachelor degree in translation and interpreting I was sure I was going to be an interpreter. The main reasons for my choice were that a career in interpreting would be more dynamic, more among people, more rewarding (on a personal and economical level) and more enjoyable in general.

Myself in the booth during my bachelor at SSML Carlo Bo, Florence

So, I took two tests to enter two prestigious universities in Italy (Forlì and Trieste) to do a master’s in interpreting. Despite knowing it would be extremely hard (there are only 30 places available on a national level in each one of them), deep inside I knew I would make it. So I went to take the tests, without any excessive preparation and I failed both, although in Forlì I didn’t get in for two places…

It was a striking blow to my confidence and it completely changed my life.

What went wrong? Two years after, I can see that stress played an important role, which also made me reconsider my previous dream of becoming an interpreter: despite all the pros, it’s a too stressing job for me to be enjoyed.

On the other hand, what I never liked about the job of a translator is that I’ve always perceived it as being extremely lonely and boring: I can’t stand the idea of spending great part of my day in front of my laptop, at home, alone.

However, with time, I have realized that many aspects of this profession fit me quite well: I like to spend time thinking about the right word, I love losing myself in the subtleties and nuances of language and I love to play with words, taking all my time to do so. I also realised that I love writing other than translating.

And this blog was the proof of it: writing in English means for me translating my thought into another language, so the translation process happens in my head as my hands transfer it to my keyboard.

As an interpreter, I am a people person: I need human contact and interaction to thrive and staying motivated. I love to listen to other people’s stories and problems, more than talking. I love to communicate in foreign languages and always learn new ones if I can. I cannot stay glued in front of a laptop for more than one hour: I need to change places, explore, distract myself.

But I also love to write and, as a translator, I can express myself more clearly and effectively in the written form. What I also share with this personality type is that I am a thinker more than a doer: I reflect, analyse and create lots of scenarios in my head before moving to action. And, helas, I am a perfectionist: I’d rather spend lots of time looking for the perfect solution than going for something which is just acceptable or average.

I have no idea what my professional life will be like, but I discovered that I incredibly love each one of these two jobs for different reasons and I would like to combine them into my future career. I also wonder…is it possible to always combine our interests and passions or must we always leave something aside? Is it always possible to find our sweet spot? I really don’t know, but I will let you know if I’ll manage to find an answer.

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