Interpreter vs Translator: Which Job Is Right for You?

remote translator working from home

People commonly use the terms “interpreter” and “translator” interchangeably. To the layperson, both refer to someone who translates from one language to another. However, these are two distinct professions. The two jobs do have similarities; however, an interpreter will not provide translation services, and a translator will not provide interpreting services. If you are thinking of earning a language degree and becoming a professional interpreter or translator, here is what you need to know to choose your career path.

Main Responsibilities

Both interpreters and translators convey meaning from one language into another. Usually, they translate into their native language. For instance, if you are a native English speaker, you might interpret or translate Spanish into English. The main difference between these two professions is the medium they work with. An interpreter works with spoken language, whereas a translator works with written materials.

In order to do their jobs effectively, interpreters and translators must have not only a solid grasp of at least two languages but also an in-depth understanding of foreign cultures. Quite often, culture influences linguistic meaning. For instance, in America, nodding or saying “Yes” indicates agreement. In Japan, nodding or saying “Hai” (“Yes”) means “I understand” or “I am listening.” It doesn’t necessarily mean the person agrees.

Interpreters and translators do not always translate language word-for-word. Rather, they seek to convey the original meaning and intent of the language. As another example, in America, one might say, “I’m tickled to death to meet you.” If you were to translate this word-for-word into another language, the original meaning might be lost; the listener might hear with bewilderment: “I’ve met you, so scratch me until I die,” rather than: “I’m happy to meet you.”

Although interpreters and translators share the goal of conveying meaning and intent, the similarities generally end there.

Work Environment

One of the differences between interpreters and translators is their respective work environments. Translators typically have office jobs, although some of them may work from home. Since they work with written language, in some cases they have more time to do their work. However, they may also encounter tight deadlines at times. It is not common for translation work to require frequent travel.

In contrast, interpreters are more likely to travel outside an office. Since they work with spoken language, they usually need to be by the side of the person for whom they are interpreting. For example, sports teams hire interpreters to improve communication between international athletes and their teammates, coaches and members of the media. Those who work for sports organizations are expected to travel with the team and be available at odd hours on an ad hoc basis.

However, some interpreters do work in office settings. They may provide interpretation services at consulates, for example, or at the United Nations. They may work by the side of individuals who need their services, or they may work at a desk. Communications equipment allows interpreters to listen to and interpret conversations in real time even when they are not physically near the speakers.

Resources and Materials

Interpreters cannot generally use reference materials while they are working. Looking up a word in a Spanish-English dictionary would take too long. They are expected to have an in-depth knowledge of vocabulary in both languages, enabling them to convey meaning rapidly from one language to the other while conversations are taking place. An interpreter must be able to listen to and remember at least a few sentences at a time, mentally translate them and then repeat them in the other language.

In contrast, translators have the option of consulting reference materials such as language dictionaries. This is helpful since translators are expected to be far more precise with their translations. However, translators may sometimes face tight deadlines. They must rely primarily on their memories, using reference materials occasionally to double check meanings or cultural differences.


Interpreters and translators can expect similar levels of compensation. However, the way they are paid may differ. Since translators work with written materials, they may be paid on a per-word or per-page basis. Some may be paid by the hour. In contrast, interpreters are typically compensated by the hour or by the day. In addition, interpreters who must travel for work can expect to receive reimbursement for their expenses.

Career Outlook

The job outlook for both professions is quite favorable. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide separate information for translators and interpreters. Rather, the information from the Bureau applies to both professions. Translators and interpreters can expect a 20% increase in the demand for their services through 2029. This rate of job growth is much faster than the average, and it represents the addition of about 15,500 jobs to the U.S. economy.1

1Retrieved from Occupational Outlook Handbook, Interpreters and Translators, in September 2020.

Whether you decide to pursue a career as an interpreter or as a translator, your path to success begins with a language degree. Grand Canyon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer programs for students who are passionate about language. Click on Request Info above to explore your future at GCU.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.