If you want to succeed in global business, clearly communicating your message is critical. To facilitate this, you need two key tools – translation and interpretation. 

This is something not every business thinks through. Of course, most understand they need to have their message accurately translated. But where does interpreting come in? 

Because, even though the terms are often used interchangeably, interpretation and translation are completely different art forms. 

If you want to understand the importance of interpret ation and the incredible value it delivers in enabling communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries – in medical and legal settings and many others as well as in business – here is the place to start: 

The importance of interpretation

The modern global business and trading system is only possible because of the professionalisation of interpretation. 

Once upon a time, explorers and merchants made do with whomever they could recruit who spoke the local language (however roughly) to facilitate trade with the different groups and cultures they met. 

This ad hoc interpreting, often accomplished by non-experts who ignored or were ignorant of cultural differences, led to huge misunderstandings. Some of these still cause very real problems for people today. 

As international trade rose in importance, complexity, and reach, the importance of interpretation grew alongside it. 

Professional interpreters as we would understand them today have only been around for the past hundred years or so. Yet their importance is clear when it comes to: 

1) Bridging language barriers 

On the most simplistic level, interpretation is bridging a language barrier in real-time. It enables people who speak different languages to understand one another. 

In some situations, accurate and instant communication between parties who speak different languages can be the difference between success and failure. In the case of medical or legal proceedings, it can sometimes be the difference between life and death. 

In business, the value lost to miscommunication every year has recently been quantified as over £950 billion. 

2) Enabling effective dialogue 

A skilled interpreter doesn’t summarise what one party is saying. They deliver as complete and accurate a verbal translation (or sometimes a signed translation) of what has been said as possible. 

You can easily imagine how “summing up the gist” of what is being said can deliver disastrous results in all kinds of situations. 

Picture a legal trial in which a jury receives an imprecise timeline of events. Or a medical appointment where a patient’s symptoms are inaccurately described. 

An interpreter’s job is often to facilitate a flow of conversation. They need to ensure all parties understand what the other wants to communicate and enable easy interaction between them. 

Done correctly, this empowers all parties to smoothly collaborate and understand each other, be it at an international conference or private medical examination. A good interpreter will: 

  • Interject to ask a question that clarifies meaning 
  • Bridge cultural gaps by offering supplementary information 
  • Avoid misunderstandings by confirming a message’s intent and how it is understood 

3) Promoting cultural understanding and sensitivity 

Most people understand that an interpreter’s job involves conveying what is said in one language into another. However, an interpreter’s role in facilitating cultural understanding is often overlooked. 

Because understanding the words someone uses is one thing. Understanding how, why, and the context in which they are saying them is something else entirely. 

For example, Chinese business etiquette and wider society (although it varies across the huge and diverse country) often encourages someone to avoid saying “no” even when the answer is a firm negative. 

China is what is sometimes called a “high context” culture. Many Asian countries are. Meaning is often expressed in what is not being said. For instance: 

  • Cues in body language or tiny facial expressions 
  • A pause before expressing an opinion (or even before an outright “yes”) 
  • Times when silence stretches out 
  • Expressing embarrassment before speaking quietly 
  • Conversely, imagining you are implying something beyond what you actually said 

It’s the kind of cultural difference that, for example, European businesspeople – used to a “low context”, more verbally explicit way of negotiating – can be very confused by. 

That’s where a professional interpreter comes in. They will understand both the cultures they are interpreting between. 

This enables them to explain the context and deeper meaning, ensuring both sides can empathise and properly convey respect and understanding to their opposite numbers.  

The distinctions between interpretation and translation 

Many people incorrectly use the words “translating” and “interpreting” in place of one another. However, there are some key differences between interpretation and translation: 

1) Oral vs. written communication 

Translation involves written communication. This means you hire a translator to translate text. This could be a document, a contract, your website, or marketing materials, for example. 

Interpretation is all about oral communication (or signed communication). It’s translating the spoken (or signed) word in real-time. This is often done to enable a conversation between two people who don’t speak the same language. 

You can find (or hire) interpreters to facilitate a wide range of situations between people or groups. For instance: 

  • Public announcements and press conferences – including all kinds of public relations exercises, events, and interviews with non-domestic markets. 
  • Medical appointments – of all kinds. Hospitals that have failed to use professional interpreters have created very negative patient outcomes in the past. 
  • Legal proceedings – everything from initial police suspect interviews to questioning witnesses to court interpreting. 
  • Business purposes – meetings, negotiations, site visits, boardroom meetings for international companies, and meetings with investors from around the world. 
  • Trade shows and conferences – enabling international attendees to participate in everything from individual trade show exhibits to conferences, seminars, and webinars. 

In the modern world, it’s common for interpreters to provide support for communications online, virtually, and by phone. 

2) Immediate vs. time-dependent 

A translator’s job often requires time. They may consult reference materials and use a number of approaches to carefully craft the translation of a source text into their target language. 

Translators frequently have technology (such as Translation Memories) to aid them in their work. They should also have editors and proofreaders checking their accuracy. 

By contrast, interpretation happens in the moment. An interpreter follows what is being said in their source language in real-time and needs to convey it in their target language almost immediately. 

They rarely have any reference materials. There is no handy technology in support. This means a good interpreter frequently needs the ability to think on their feet and – often – a truly impressive memory. 

There are two main ways that these theoretically immediate services are delivered: 

i) Simultaneous interpreting

Picture interpreters in a booth during a conference. They listen to what is being said on the stage while providing a spoken or signed interpretation essentially at the same time (though, in reality, twenty or so seconds after). 

Simultaneous interpreters usually speak into microphones that are linked to headsets being worn by the members of the audience who need them. 

You can also have chuchotage or “whispered interpreting” where the linguist stands just behind the person who needs the interpretation, murmuring it into their ear. 

Simultaneous interpreting is best suited to something like a conference, where one person is speaking to many people.  

ii) Consecutive interpreting

Conversely, consecutive interpreting is all about facilitating conversations between two or more parties. 

Imagine a discussion between two leaders during a business meeting. Or delicate international negotiations between the delegations of two countries. Or your next medical exam. 

A consecutive interpreter will let one party speak. They wait for a natural break – every few sentences or after a complete thought. Then they deliver the verbal or signed translation of what was said. Then the other party speaks and the process repeats. 

Sometimes, each party will have their own interpreter to ensure there can be no room for misunderstanding.

Leverage the art of interpretation

If you want to facilitate real-time, immediate spoken or signed communication between individuals or groups who speak different languages and hail from different cultures, professional interpretation is the way to do it. 

The value an interpreter delivers in a diverse range of situations – from business and commerce-related settings to medical and legal ones – is massive. It’s also unique. 

Interpretation’s key purpose is to ensure both sides understand not only the spoken words used but also the context, meaning, and intent of the communication. 

It is often the difference between a trade made, a deal broken, or a relationship that thrives.


Want to explore the interpreting services that might be right for your event, meeting, or appointment? 

Asian Absolute helps global brands including HSBC, Ikea, Coca-Cola, and dozens of others communicate with their international audiences loudly and clearly. 

Reach out today for a cost and commitment-free chat with one of our signed and spoken language specialists.