Transcription vs. Translation: What is the Difference?

February 29, 2024
Transcription vs. Translation: What is the Difference?

What is the difference between transcription and translation? Transcription turns spoken words into written text. Translation changes the text from one language to another, helping people understand each other.

It’s a question that’s easy to answer if you transcribe or translate for a living. However, pop it into a search engine and you’re likely to wind up looking at pictures of DNA. That’s because the translate vs transcribe debate isn’t just related to the language industry – the terms are also used in genomics.

I’m not qualified to enter into a detailed discussion on gene expression and how to transcribe or translate DNA, but I’m happy to spend a few minutes looking at the difference between transcription and translation in language terms. Let’s jump straight in. 

Translate Vs Transcribe – What’s the Difference?

Both transcription and translation involve working with language, but the two tasks are very different. Below, I’ll explore what each of these terms means and why it’s important that businesses understand the transcribe vs translate discussion, so that they can operate efficiently and effectively when it comes to meeting their language-related requirements. 

Language Transcription 

Let’s talk first about language transcription and what is transcribed in transcription

What Does Transcribe Mean?

Transcription in linguistics refers to the conversion of spoken words into written words. The transcriber listens to an audio file or video, then types the content into a document. This is, in a nutshell, what is meant by transcription. 

What Is Transcribed in Transcription? 

Anything that is spoken can be transcribed. The subject matter could relate to celebrity gossip or astrophysics. Regardless of the nature of the content, the task remains the same – to take the spoken language and convert it into written format.

A transcriber meaning to deliver top quality written content, however, will need some guidance before they begin. And this is where the task can get tricky. The required guidance usually relates to what can and can’t be left out of the transcription.

If the transcriber is typing up a recording of a meeting, for example, do they capture the part where the administrator pops into the room and asks who wants tea? Or if they are writing down the words of a public speaker who often begins one sentence before changing her mind and starting on another, do they transcribe all those false starts? If not, how much can and should they leave out? And how do they deal with any inaudible elements of the recording?

Like I say, it can be tricky work. But it’s also vital to the operation of many businesses, to the legal profession, to the medical profession and so much more. 

Transcription Versus Translation

Ok, so that’s transcription. Now let’s look at the other half of the translate vs transcribe discussion: translation. 

Understanding the Translation of Languages 

What is language translation? In simple terms, translation involves converting one language into another. A translator takes a written document and converts it from its ‘source’ language to a ‘target’ language.

As with transcription, the content of the translation could relate to absolutely anything. A translator could be tasked with converting a set of financial accounts from English to Korean or translating a marketing brochure from Swedish to German – or anything and everything in between.

I’ve talked about translating written documents here, but translators can also work with video and audio files. A translator could be asked to translate French audio to English, for example. This is a crossover with transcription work, which I’ll look at in just a moment.

I just want to explore the practicalities of translation work in a little more depth first. If you’re interested in the history of translation as well, by the way, you can find more information via the link below.

Read more: A Very Brief History of Translation 

Is a Translator Simply a Language Converter? 

Far from it. Translation is a nuanced task that involves understanding the purpose of the document being translated, who its intended audience is and how that audience is likely to respond to the translation. The translator may need to deliver a literal conversion of the words or a ‘sense for sense’ version that delivers the meaning while not straying too far from the original text. It can be a very fine balancing act.

Translators may also need to undertake localization work. This is where they help to shape a document so that it will be better suited to the target audience. It might involve changing measurement or date formats, for example, or altering a document more substantially – all in close collaboration with the client, of course.

There are linguistic nuances to account for as well. Let’s consider translation language requirements. Spanish is a good example. Did you know that in Peru alone there are five distinct variations of Spanish? And that none of them precisely matches the Spanish spoken in Spain? Or the Spanish spoken in Mexico or in the US? As such, a translator needs to deliver not just the right language, but the right regional variation of that language to meet the client’s needs. 

What Is the Difference Between Transcription and Translation?

What’s the difference between transcription and translation? As I’ve explained above, transcription is taking spoken words and writing them down. Translation is converting them from one language to another.

However, it’s when we start thinking about the words being transcribed that the transcribe translate debate begins to get confusing, because transcription can play a role in translation. Say a client needs a Spanish video translated to English. The task will likely be considered a translation job, but the first thing the client will need is a Spanish transcriber – because they will need a written copy of the content for the translator to work on when they translate Spanish audio to English text.

This is why translators who work with audio files and videos may also undertake transcription work. It’s often not a pure translate vs transcribe division of duties. Instead, the same individual ends up working on both tasks – hence there being clients who can’t always distinguish between transcription and translation, because the talented linguists they use are providing both services as part of the same task.

Are there advantages to using the same person to undertake transcriptions and translations? Yes, of course. It means only explaining the task once, for starters. It also means that, by the time the translator comes to translate the document, they will be familiar with the content, having just transcribed it. And having undertaken the transcription process will mean the translator can complete the language conversion element of the task more swiftly. 

Why Are Transcription and Translation Important?

Why is transcription important? Transcription can help businesses in all sorts of ways. A busy CEO might find it easier to dictate letters than to type them, then rely on her secretary to transcribe and print them, ready for her to sign. A solicitor may want to record interviews, then use written excerpts from them in court. A business going through a merger might need written transcripts of important meetings or calls.

I could go on – there are myriad reasons why companies rely on transcription to help them operate efficiently. Consider the television industry. All those films, series, documentaries, news broadcasts, adverts and more, all needing subtitles to be created based on the spoken content. Netflix transcription jobs alone are enough to keep an army of transcribers busy.

Translation is also key to the successful operation of many commercial enterprises, as well as medical companies, legal firms and so much more. We live in a globalized world where cross border communication is essential to so many people’s way of life. There’s the business element to that, with translation facilitating the trade of goods and services, but it also supports the sharing of essential information. The most obvious recent example has been the need to share information on Covid-19 with healthcare providers around the globe. 

Transcription and Translation Professionals 

When it comes to meeting companies’ language needs, translation versus transcription can often come up from a professional standpoint. Many translators will at some point have the opportunity to pick up jobs that involve transcription as well as translation. And one quick foreign language transcription and translation job can soon lead to more.

Offering to transcribe and translate works well in terms of becoming more useful to clients. It provides a one stop shop language resource, which makes life easier for companies and other entities seeking to have audio and video content transcribed and/or translated, as well as written documents translated. And making clients’ lives easier can result in plenty of regular, long-term work. 

Wrap Up 

Do you have anything to add on the difference between transcription and translation? Which of these services do you provide? Or which does your business use? We would love you to leave a comment below, to share your insights.

Or do you instead need some support with translation and transcription work? Here at Tomedes, we work with a global team of transcription and translation professionals with exceptional language skills. We’ve worked with more than 95,000 business clients to date, supporting them to grow and expand their operations across international borders. Just let us know what you need, and we’ll do the rest. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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