Six Common Myths Debunked

Interpreters are not all the same!

Since most people from the President to the Media confuse the terms, let’s start at the beginning.

When rendering concepts from one language to another,

  • Translation deals with written communication; and
  • Interpreting deals with spoken communication, whether for presentations, depositions, or personal or public meetings with non-English speakers. And interpreting is full of misperceptions.


  1. If you can speak a language, you can translate or interpret it. Simple questions like “Where is the station?” are far different from knowing complex terminology and sentence structure in the worlds of Business, Law, Academia, etc.While translators may have time to research unknown terms and consult with colleagues, interpreters must react immediately to the conversation. And simultaneous or diplomatic interpreters, acting in real time as at the UN, are at the top of the linguistic field.Translation and interpretation are about rendering concepts, not words, from the source to the target language. Vocabulary; grammar patterns; thought processes; business, legal and government systems, etc. can differ dramatically from one language to another. And some English words don’t exist in other languages and vice versa. The interpreter must be skilled in transmitting these concepts quickly, accurately and immediately between each language. And to do so requires many years of training and professional experience.
  2. Since a population is large, it should have many interpreters. Maybe. China has lots of linguists but most of them are poorly trained. Most Danes speak fluent English but few of them can translate or interpret well. Indians speak English, but most are not trained in specialized terminology such as Medicine and Law. The issue becomes qualifications and experience. Those interpreting specialized subjects for ten+ years become far more qualified than novices or laymen.
  3. Interpreters are all the same. No. Some are consecutive, simultaneous, court-certified, FBI- or State Department-certified, or serve very senior global executives. Others speak fluent Software, Healthcare or Agriculture. Each has different skills and specialties, just as lawyers do.Legal interpreters must be administratively certified to do depositions and court certified to do trials.Many languages such as Chinese, Hindi, Vietnamese, etc. have dialects that are incomprehensible between one region and another. Depending on the speaker, your trained professional interpreter must know the presented dialect and mimic the speaker’s tone using similar target-language slang, incorrect grammar or elegant speech as the speaker is using in the source language.
  4. The session should take a short time. In reality, consecutive interpretations – the speaker speaks and then pauses while the interpreter interprets — double the time of the planned session. A three-hour deposition can take six hours with interpretation.
  5. Interpreters are too expensive.  Lawyers think that they are worth $200-$500/hour or more. And like lawyers, cheap does not mean good.>What’s the cost to you if an interpreter renders the concepts incorrectly?>How many such mistakes can your case or meeting afford?Interpreters are trained professionals at the top of the Language world. Depending on scarcity, many command $85-$250/hour. And court-certified and simultaneous interpreters are at a premium because their training and skills are higher … no matter what the language.
  6. I can find an interpreter on my own. Maybe … if you know where to look; what to ask for; how to screen candidates; have the time not to do your normal job (which is a cost, not a savings); and how to draw up the contracts. That’s why professional language agencies have the expertise to assist, and can ensure that you get a qualified professional with the needed skills to match your assignment.


Interpreting is a highly specialized and qualified art which professionals take many years to study and perfect. Interpreters’ knowledge of your industry terminology also makes them more specialized … and expensive. Since their schedules can book up weeks in advance, it is best:

  • to schedule your session as early as possible;
  • know your needs and be open to an agency’s suggestions; and
  • to weigh the cost of getting it “cheap” vs. getting it right.