The Grammarphobia Blog

Open to interpretation

Q: Have you ever addressed the distinction between “interpret” and “translate”? I have always used the former to mean going from one spoken language to another and the latter for written to written. But given that one often hears “simultaneous translation,” I am beginning to think I am too pedantic. Your thoughts?

A: Dictionaries define “interpret” variously as (1) to explain the meaning of something; (2) to conceive the significance of or construe something; (3) to present or conceptualize the meaning of something, by means of art or criticism; (4) to translate orally, as from one language to another. For instance, one might “interpret” a foreigner’s speech, a piece of new legislation, a painting, or the results of a patient’s EKG.

“Translate” is defined variously as (1) to put into another language; (2) to put into simpler terms or different words; (3) to change something from one form into another, or transform; (4) to express something in another medium. For instance, one might “translate” a Spanish novel into English, or a musical into a ballet, or a complicated theory into simple English, or an idea into a blueprint.

It seems to me that the notion behind “interpret” is to explain, while the idea behind “translate” is to transform or change.

“Interpret” is related to the Latin interpretari (to explain or expound). It was first used in English in the 1300s to mean to explain the meaning of something; to make clear; to construe (motives or actions, for instance).

“Translate” is related to the Latin verb transferre (to transfer). As first used in English in the 1300s, “translate” meant to transport or convey something from one place to another; to change into another language; to transform a thing into something else.

I feel, as you do, that with language-to-language conversions, “translate” is better for written ones and “interpret” for oral ones. But obviously there’s some room for overlapping, since the term “simultaneous translation” has been with us for quite some time.

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