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Translation vs. Interpretation vs. Subtitling: What’s the Difference?

It's crucial to understand the differences between translation, interpretation, transcreation, and subtitling, and how they fit into a business’s overall localization strategy.

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The terms translation and interpretation (or translator and interpreter) are often used interchangeably and can cause confusion. Add in other localization terms, like subtitling (or subtitlers), and the waters seem to get even murkier. Yet they cover very different aspects of localization — and require very different skill sets. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for language experts to specialize only in one or the other.

Many businesses looking to expand into new markets are learning the ins and outs of localization on the fly. Finding the right linguists for their content needs can be challenging. So it’s crucial to understand not only the differences between these terms but how they fit into a business’s overall localization strategy.

Translation

Translation is the process of taking a written text in one language and converting it into another. That may sound straightforward and relatively simple. But it’s far from it.

Translators are bound by the text. That is, they must ensure the original written message is conveyed accurately — in the same style, tone, and register — but without embellishment or omissions (no tweaks that might slightly alter the meaning). At the same time, to make sure the translation reads well and can be understood, translators must respect the grammar rules, syntax, and linguistic nuances of the target language.

The result — the translated text — must stand on its own, independent of the source text. That way, the message has the best possible chance of resonating with the new audience as effectively as it did with the original audience.

As you can imagine, a quality translation requires a great deal of specificity, particularly when it comes to the linguistic choices made in the professional translation. Although translators must thoroughly understand the source language and culture, a translator’s intimate knowledge of the target culture and their ability to write well in the target language are paramount. That is why translators typically work from their non-native language into their native language.

When done well, the translation process makes written communication with multilingual audiences frictionless. To that end, the list of translatable content types is limitless. Essentially, any written material businesses use to communicate with their customers, employees, or business partners can be translated.

Transcreation

As more and more businesses embrace localization as part of their global marketing strategy, the term transcreation has risen in prominence. But there is sometimes confusion as to when businesses should ask for translation services and when they need transcreation services instead.

Mainly used in marketing contexts, transcreation is a cross between translation and content creation. Simply put, it’s more about creating copy that resonates emotionally with a new audience. While linguists can use the original copy as inspiration or a foundation, they don’t need to adhere to that copy as closely. Indeed, the transcreated copy will often be a complete reimagining of your content.

As such, transcreation is more akin to copywriting in many respects and is usually performed by copywriters who are often subject matter experts in the target market. Since it’s a more specialized service than technical translation, it is also more expensive. Therefore, it should be employed strategically.

Not all content will benefit from transcreation services. But businesses might consider using transcreation specialists for slogans and taglines, advertisements, memes, and other content whose resonance hinges on a deep cultural understanding.

Interpretation

Interpretation is the process of conveying the meaning of the spoken word from one language to another. Unlike translation, it’s typically performed in real-time, so it’s a much more immediate, fast-paced process.

Another key difference between translation and interpretation: professional interpreters work bi-directionally. That is, they are called on to interpret from their non-native language into their native language, and vice versa.

There are two main types of interpretation:

  • Simultaneous interpreting — The linguist interprets the speaker’s words for the target audience while the speaker is talking.
  • Consecutive interpreting — The linguist waits until the speaker finishes or pauses. Then the interpreter reformulates what was said in the target language, often using a combination of written notes and short-term memory.

Interpreters often walk into a situation not knowing what the speaker plans to say, how fast they will speak, or how articulate they will be. Since time is of the essence, interpreters must learn to paraphrase accurately. There’s no time for second-guessing or backtracking. As a result, although interpreters are expected to convey the message in the same style, tone, and register as the original speaker, there is less emphasis on nuance and shades of meaning.

When done well, interpreters make it easy to communicate with live audiences. Businesses looking to go global will most likely use interpretation services when hosting live events, participating in conferences, and in other situations where direct, real-time spoken communication with their customers, employees, or business partners is needed.

Subtitling

While there is a clear distinction between translation and interpretation, subtitling tends to blur those lines a bit. On the surface, it seems to combine elements of both translation (the output is written words) and interpretation (the input, or source, is spoken).

But in the strictest sense, subtitling is considered translation. Most times, translators will start with the transcript of a video (written in the source language). They will then translate that text, incorporating the usual translation considerations: the original message must be conveyed accurately, in the same style, tone, and register, but sound natural in the target language.

Here’s where things get more complicated.

Because the subtitles will ultimately be synced to the original video and the text will appear and vanish on the screen as the characters are talking, the translation must be easy to read at a glance and not distract from the video.

That can aid in the translation process. The translator can lean on visual context and audio cues to convey tone and set the scene, even if the target audience doesn’t understand the language being spoken. But it can also make things more challenging.

The subtitles must match the speech patterns of the original speakers and the speed of the original video. As a result, subtitlers must adhere to strict character limits. Usually, the translated subtitles must fit on only two lines of text, with each line containing no more than 35-42 characters. Like interpretation, this requires linguists who can masterfully do paraphrasing what is being said on screen.

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