How is it that so many otherwise learned U.S. professionals -- lawyers, journalists, etc. -- can be so oblivious to the differences between translating and interpreting as to call interpreters "translators"? They can be outright defiant in their ignorance, thumbing their noses at English literature and contemporary institutional usage. Their counterparts, or indeed even less-educated people in Iquique, Nanjo-machi or Dakar are unlikely to make the same error.
The easiest answer: ignorance of the name of the profession is the chief symptom of "English-speaking country syndrome," an indifference to the difficulties of cross-cultural communication brought on by the ascendancy of English. Its sufferers have either never given much thought to the practical details of working with multiple languages, or imagined that they were not so hard to overcome as to require trained specialists.
Answer No. 2: they have had little access to professional interpreters since many situations are handled well enough by people who just happen to speak two languages. The discourse to be interpreted may not be very technical, or there may not be much of a premium placed on accuracy or speed. A reporter or lawyer might rephrase his question multiple times before getting the answer he might have gotten immediately through a professional interpreter.
Another factor is the tiny size of the profession: a mere estimated 8000 professional interpreters worldwide. Also, though interpreting has a long history, the modern organized profession only emerged in the 1950s.
Some may wish to blame the ambiguity of the verb "translate," which if modified with "oral" is a fair description of what interpreters do. Yet the qualifications and training needed to do "oral translation" are so different from those for written translation that distinct titles are useful to differentiate members of the two respective professions.
This is precisely what academic institutions, government agencies, international organizations and professional associations have done. Translators translate text into text--the written word. Interpreters interpret live speech into speech for a live audience--the spoken word. Or to paraphrase Professor Donald Saari, translators are locked up with books in libraries until their version of a book is ready; interpreters are locked up with people all day in conference rooms until the meeting is done.
Pretending the distinction does not matter is sloppy.
A transcript of a press conference labeled "As translated" should be understood as a carefully researched version prepared by a skilled writer--a translator--based on a pre-existing transcript in a different language. "As interpreted" would mean it was merely a transcript of an interpreter's on-the-spot spoken rendering.
An interpreter may not work at his own pace, consulting experts and books as he studies a text, mulling over the phrasing of his rendition at leisure, but must rather keep pace with the speaker and instantly produce a rendition for an impatient audience, drawing only on his own mental resources. His input does not calmly await him, laid out in black and white on paper, but is rather a rushing stream of variously accented, idiosyncratic speech. He must in a sense "become" the speaker, seeking as an actor to faithfully portray tone and emotion. For an interpreter, having a good ear for languages and being orally communicative are not optional.
The Old Testament And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter.
The New Testament If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.
Second Lord: ...speak what terrible
language you will: though you understand it not
yourselves, no matter; for we must not seem to
understand him, unless some one among us whom we
must produce for an interpreter.
First Soldier: Good captain, let me be the interpreter.
Second Lord: Oscorbidulchos volivorco.
First Soldier: The general is content to spare thee yet
They sente out their shalop with 10 men, and Squanto for their guid and interpreter, to discover and veiw that bay, and trade with ye natives.
You...express an earnest desire of seeing me in France...I am unacquainted with your language...to converse through the medium of an interpreter...
...when I was alone with Mr Gorbachev..the need to talk through an interpreter...
Helen, if I'd been able to get that kind of grade from you in French I wouldn't have needed an interpreter last summer in Paris.
George W. Bush
A look of shock washed over Putin's face as Peter, the interpreter, delivered
the line in Russian.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
They seemed astonished to see so many Americans in their little village but
graciously allowed Chelsea and me to hold their babies and ask them questions
through an interpreter.
The professional association of interpreters "The work of a conference interpreter is an oral intellectual exercise which is quite distinct from written translation and requires different training and qualifications."
The University of Paris (Sorbonne Nouvelle) grants separate professional degrees in both conference interpreting and translation. Each section has its own coursework and faculty; students enrolled in one section take no classes in the other.
United States Department of State "Assignment of interpreters to official visits and high-level meetings."
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics "Although some people do both, interpreting and translation are different professions. Interpreters deal with spoken words, translators with written words. Each task requires a distinct set of skills and aptitudes, and most people are better suited for one or the other."
Sascha Udagawa interviewing this blogger
It is a common belief that translation and interpretation are basically the same type of work, but they are actually two very different professions. Interpreters deal with spoken words, translators with written words. Each task requires a distinct set of skills, and most people are better suited to one or the other. On the difference between translation and interpretation, Hersey says, "It's mainly a difference of speed, but it's also a difference of medium. Either you're speaking or you're writing - those are really two quite different exercises. Is it possible to do both? I suppose, but I think the qualifications and the abilities to do both well aren't usually found in the same person.