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Translation versus Interpretation

January 19, 2010


Translation is the interpreting of the meaning of a text and the subsequent production of an equivalent text, likewise called a “translation” that communicates the same message in another language. The text to be translated is called the source text, and the language that it is to be translated into is called the target language; the final product is called the target text. As professional translators, we always take into account constraints that include context, the rules of grammar of the two languages, their writing conventions, and their idioms. In performing our tasks we do not rely on a simple word-for-word correspondence between any two languages, which cannot take into account context, grammar, conventions.

A good translator should not proceed as if translation were an exact science – as if consistent, one-to-one correlations existed between the words and phrases of different languages, rendering translations fixed and identically reproducible, much as in cryptography. He should understand the source language well, he should have specific experience in the subject matter of the text, and should be a good writer in the target language. Moreover, as a linguist, a good translator should not be only multilingual, but also multicultural.

Legal Translation

Legal translation is the translation of texts within the field of law. As law is a culture-dependent subject field, legal translation is not a simple task.

Only professional translators specialising in legal translation should translate legal documents and scholarly writings since mistranslation of a passage in a contract, for example, could lead to lawsuits and loss of money.

In performing its tasks, a legal translator must always keep the following in mind:

  • The legal system of the source text is structured in a way that suits the culture, which is reflected in the legal language;
  • The target text is to be read by someone who is familiar with another legal system and its language;
  • Most forms of legal writing, and contracts in particular, seek to establish clearly defined rights and obligations for certain individuals; and
  • It is essential to ensure precise correspondence of these rights and obligations in the source text and in the translation.

In addition, a legal translator must also focus on the following aspects, apart from terminological lacunae or lexical gaps:

  • Textual conventions in the source language are often culture-dependent and may not correspond to conventions in the target culture;
  • Linguistic structures that are often found in the source language have no direct equivalent structures in the target language; and, therefore
  • Translators have to find target language structures with the same functions as those in the source language.


Language interpreting or interpretation is the intellectual activity of facilitating oral and sign-language communication, either simultaneously or consecutively, between two or more users of different languages. Functionally, interpreting and interpretation are the descriptive words for the activity. In professional practice interpreting denotes the act of facilitating communication from one language form into its equivalent, or approximate equivalent, in another language form. Interpretation denotes the actual product of this work, that is, the message as thus rendered into speech, sign language, writing, non-manual signals, or other language form. As professional linguist, in performing the tasks, an nterpreter shall always observe this important distinction to avoid confusion.

Functionally, an interpreter converts a thought or expression of a source language into an identical expression in a target language in “real time”. His function is to convey every semantic element (tone and register) and every intention and feeling of the message that the source-language speaker is directing to the target-language listeners.

Despite being used interchangeably, interpretation and interpretation are not synonymous, but refer, respectively, to the spoken and written transference of meaning between two languages. A professional interpreter shall try to achieve total accuracy at all times, details of the original (source) speech can be omitted from the interpretation into the target language, especially if the source speaker talks very quickly, or recites long lists of figures without a pause.

A trained professional simultaneous interpreter never omits original source language; rather he learns to provide the same information in the target language.

Court-Room Interpretation or Interpreting

Legal, court, or judicial interpretation or interpreting, occurs in courts of justice, administrative tribunals, arbitral tribunals, and wherever a legal proceeding is held (i.e. a conference room for a deposition or the locale for taking a sworn statement). Legal interpretation or interpreting can be the consecutive interpretation of witnesses’ testimony for example, or the simultaneous interpretation of entire proceedings, by electronic means, for one person, or all of the people attending.

The right to a competent interpreter for anyone who does not understand the language of the court (especially for the accused in a criminal trial) is usually considered a fundamental rule of justice. Therefore, this right is often guaranteed in national constitutions, declarations of rights, fundamental laws establishing the justice system or by precedents set by the highest courts.

In court-room interpretation or interpreting, a court-room interpreter should not omit anything from the source, no matter how fast the source speaks, since not only is accuracy a principal canon for interpreters, but mandatory. He shall always attempt to avoid any alteration of even a single word in a material way that can totally mislead the triers of fact. He shall try his best to keep the most important factor for this level of accuracy in mind.

It is, however, always expected that speakers at interpreted meetings ensure better communication of their message into other languages by slowing their delivery slightly and by adding a pause of one or two seconds at the end of each paragraph.

© Prahasto Wahju Pamungkas 2009

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