I see it's stated in many websites that "interpreter" refers to someone who does oral translation (often bi-directionally) whereas "translator" refers to someone who translates written material.

How far back does this distinction in terms go?

Wikipedia currently says:

Interpreting is an ancient human activity which predates the invention of writing.[1] However, the origins of the profession of interpreting date back to less than a century ago.[2]

So I'm inclined to think the rigid distinction may go back only as far "interpreting" was recognized as a distinct profession, but it'd be nice to have some harder information to confirm or refute this.

  • 2
    I don't think you've characterized the distinction quite accurately. I would say that in practice, "interpreter" refers to someone who does oral translation, while "translator" can be used for someone who does oral or written translation (or both). And in my experience, most people not involved in this kind of work are actually likelier to use "translator" than "interpreter" in reference to someone who does oral translation.
    – Nanigashi
    May 16, 2019 at 18:27
  • 1
    @Nanigashi I think most people in Britain would refer to someone doing oral translations as an "interpreter".
    – WS2
    May 16, 2019 at 18:32

1 Answer 1


An interpreter is someone who accompanies another person giving a speech to give real-time translation into another language (including, notably, into sign language).

A translator is someone who translates words into another language, particularly written words, but also for other works such as movies and recorded broadcasts. Note that the broad definition of translators means that interpreters are technically a subset of translators.

In general terms: Interpretation is [always] done in real time, while translation is [usually] done after the fact.

Interestingly, this distinction in terminology carries over into computer science, where an interpreter is a program that directly executes code step-by-step without being compiled, and a translator is a broad term for a program that converts code from one language to another, encompassing both compilers and interpreters.

To address the original question, I suspect that has always been the distinction. The prefix inter- means "between," suggestive of the direct nature of bridging a language barrier between people, whereas trans- means "across" or "bring over," as in bringing a piece of text from one language to another.

To make things more confusing, there is another meaning of interpret, to decipher or to "explain the meaning of or make understandable." This is used to describe such things as portraying an emotion in the form of a dance, discerning the meaning of a dream, or figuring out the meaning of an ancient text in a forgotten language. In this case, the emphasis is not so much on when the interpretation is taking place, but on the fact that the subject matter was previously unintelligible. One who does some of these types of interpretation may also be called an interpreter.

  • What about someone who interprets obscure writings???
    – Hot Licks
    May 17, 2019 at 12:04
  • @HotLicks Your comment sniped my edit, as I was circling back to the same idea after sleeping on it. I would opine that interpreting in that manner is still "real-time" or "instantaneous" in that there is a moment of understanding being realized, but there's probably a better phrasing that encompasses both points. May 17, 2019 at 12:31
  • Thank you, but this doesn't truly answer the question; I acknowledged the present distinction in the question, so I didn't really require a reiteration, and I was hoping for something firmer regarding the earliest distinction than a suspicion. The aside regarding modern use in CS is an interesting observation, though. The sense of explanation or explication of cryptic material seems to have been the earlier meaning, according to Etymonline.
    – Jacob C.
    May 29, 2019 at 20:04

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