From Translator to Interpreter: The Translator’s Edge

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Member Leonard Morin, former president and secretary of the Circle, has provided us with his observations on the benefits and the pitfalls of transitioning from translator to interpreter.

The Translator’s Edge

Is a background in translation an asset or a liability to new interpreters?

by Leonard Morin

There are certain aspects of translation that facilitate and others that hinder a transition into interpreting. The act of translating, in the sense of converting one language into another, is common to both. In itself, this underlying skill is complex and requires significant prior training and experience. Written translation is a task that requires close attention to and study of both the source and the target texts. Making this process a habit allows the linguist to work with greater precision. This tends to be an enduring advantage for the interpreter who has had significant prior training and experience as a translator over interpreters who have not. An advantage translators have over non-translators when embarking on a career in interpreting is knowing the tricks of the translation process, such as converting nouns into verbs, reordering sentences, translating or not translating names, converting the idioms of one language into the idioms of the other, and the invaluable asset of ready translation solutions (whether technical or general) in one’s toolbox. These ready translations often represent many hours of prior research.

Besides the benefit in translation solutions of investing many hours in research work, there is the further advantage of becoming a good researcher. Research is no less essential to interpreting than it is to translating. Of course, translators pass their time in their offices with research resources constantly at their fingertips and under significantly higher accuracy requirements that those that apply to interpreters. Translators tend to be better researchers and more computer literate than interpreters without translation experience.

The Translator’s Baggage

Although interpreters ought to engage in research constantly, and translators generally obtain a higher level of precision, certain aspects of prior experience in translation form impediments to becoming an interpreter. Translators have the “luxury” of being able to look up any words for which they do not have ready translations. I put “luxury” in quotation marks here because in reality translators are almost always under tremendous pressure due to deadlines. Translators, however, who reinvent themselves into interpreters will find they have to adopt a drastically different approach to tackling vocabulary. Whereas the translator can look up a word and forget it (which is relative since the translator may need the same translation later), the interpreter has to commit it to memory. While not actually working (although perhaps at work, as in the case of a court interpreter in the courtroom waiting for his or her case to be called), linguists are exposed to vocabulary in either of the pair of languages that they may need to know in the line of duty. While the translator may listen but put off looking up the vocabulary until later, an interpreter is probably best off looking up the word right away. Whether or not the interpreter has a satisfactory solution right away, she will have to note down the correct translation in a glossary and commit it to memory. This means the interpreter’s ears must always be pricked up for new vocabulary.

Whereas the interpreter is always looking to improve vocabulary, the actual interpreting occurs in a limited time span and generally only partially survives in human memory. As a translator, I found that it was helpful to carry the text I was working on with me in my mind even when I was not working and in many cases even after it was done. New interpreters coming from a background in translation may find it hard to adjust to the fact that the work is done in one shot and there is no going back. Translators generally translate the text and then go over it multiple times. For the interpreter there is only one rendition. Of course the interpreter has to learn from each session and work at doing better the next time around (especially at similar sessions), but interpreters render their performance in one session and there is no going back to change it. The translator who is in the habit of ruminating over work done may find a transition into interpreting difficult and taxing. The interpretation rendered is irremediable and irrevocable. On top of that, the level of perfection is below that of a competent translation. Brooding over something patently imperfect that cannot be changed is futile and can be extremely nerve-wracking, but a translator become interpreter is apt to make this mistake and suffer the concomitant anxiety and frustration: frustration for not being able to correct errors or inaccuracies incurred; anxiety about the next performance, which will be subject to the same implacable spontaneity and finality.[1]

A Different Kind of Stress

On the other hand, full-time translators who transition into becoming full-time interpreters may feel that they are relieved from a certain kind of stress. While interpreters are put on the spot to perform and think on their feet, translators live with the gnawing anxiety of unfinished translations and impending deadlines. Successful translators may find that they rarely do not live in the shadow of one or several deadlines. This shadow marks every other activity in the translator’s life. Once they have dedicated themselves full-time to interpreting, this shadow is lifted. Of course, the linguist will now have to deal with the more acute stress associated with a largely improvised performance. And even though the standard of accuracy in interpreting is necessarily lower than in translating, in interpreting the ramifications of inaccuracy may be just as severe if not more so. One need only bring to mind legal, medical, or diplomatic interpreting, in which a single misspoken word can have harrowing consequences.

Translators have to be or become excellent writers in their target language. They must also have the discipline to work long hours in solitude. Whereas a career in translation will intimately involve linguists with their computers and therefore lead to a higher level of computer literacy than most interpreters boast, the latter must master another set of specific skills beyond being a “translator.” Becoming an interpreter is like learning to master a musical instrument. Linguists must learn the three primary modes of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous interpreting and sight translation. Doing so requires study and practice. Other subsets of skills, such as public speaking and note-taking for consecutive, and clear diction, especially for simultaneous, are also indispensable.

Another skill for interpreting is everything that has to do with interacting with people. For me, one of the motivations for transitioning from translating to interpreting, besides higher pay and shorter hours, was social interaction. Although interpreting can offer the translator a refreshing escape from solitary confinement, one may soon find oneself saturated with personal interaction, which is not always pleasant. I think the social aspect is one of the biggest appeals of interpreting. In my branch of the industry, court interpreting, I have near constant dealings with lawyers, court clerks, court officers, defendants, judges, and interpreter colleagues. On the one hand, as a per diem interpreter, you are likely to meet a wide variety of people from different courts; on the other, as a staff interpreter, you are able to develop relationships more deeply while still constantly meeting new people.

The Lotus

Many translators became translators because they were enticed by a life of reflection and serenity. If they are like me, their versatility allows them to appreciate the charm of reclusion as well as that of intense human interaction. Yet I think humans usually find disenchantment in getting what they thought they wanted. So this retreat into interpreting may be more tumultuous than the translator expected. After the initial high of intense, spontaneous human exchanges, the translator-become- interpreter may feel overwhelmed by the deluge of human contact. The stressors are as diverse as the people one comes in contact with. Besides being around people non-stop (and defendants are not the only ones who can be unpleasant), there are anxieties, such as trying to capture every detail of the prosecution’s bail recitation. Translators who contemplate becoming interpreters should understand that interpreting is a rich profession, but the rose has its thorns. Indeed, a good interpreter is like a lotus flower that rises above its bed of muddy water.

Leonard Morin is a staff interpreter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He previously practiced as a freelance translator and interpreter from 2004-2015. Leonard interprets Spanish and Dutch and translates chiefly legal and cartography-related documents from Dutch, Spanish, and German into English. He earned a propedeuse degree in law in the Netherlands and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Columbia University. Leonard has earned translation and interpreting certificates and won academic prizes for his Spanish and German. He previously served separate terms as president and secretary of the New York Circle of Translators and is currently a delegate of his union Local 1070 to District Council 37.


[1] Save the scarce opportunities that a court interpreter, for example, has to correct the record after making an error. 

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