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Translation and Transcription – What’s The Difference?

For some, it might be obvious what the difference between translation and transcription is, but for many people telling the two apart is confusing.

For example, I recently received this message from a client, “I have an audio interview with our CEO which is in French. I need a written record of the interview made for our French and English speaking staff to read. I don’t know if I should pay for transcription or translation. Please advise because I can’t tell what the difference is.”

In this case, the client needed both transcription, and translation of the audio to enable their French and English staff to read the message conveyed in the interview. I explained the difference between the two forms of writing to the client and she gladly hired me to transcribe the audio in French, and translate it into English.

In your career as a freelance translator, you might encounter similar clients who get confused when you talk about translation and transcription. To make it easier for you to explain the difference between the two, in this article, I will describe in detail what translation and transcription mean and give you the key difference between the two.

Let’s get it started!

Translation and Transcription Defined

The definitions of translation and transcription are pretty simple to understand.


This is the process of converting written text or spoken words from one language to another. For example, If you’re doing research for a project and come across a document written in Spanish that you think will be a good source of information, converting that Spanish document into English or your native language so that you can be able to read it, is considered to be a translation. You can translate written text using machine translation or hire a human translator.

An example of translating spoken words is what happens when a U.S. president holds a press briefing with another world leader. The president will speak English and a professional translator will translate his message into French, Spanish, German, Mexican, Arabic, etc.for the other world leader to understand what has been said.


When you convert a video or audio file into a written document, this activity will be transcription. This service is usually done by a transcriptionist. Unlike translation where the language of the content changes, the language in a transcription doesn’t. That means if you have an audio file in English a transcriptionist will create an English text document for you. The transcriptionist will also ensure that words in the written document are exactly the same as what is said in a recording so that the message doesn’t change.

An example of someone who may need transcription services is a journalist who has conducted many audio interviews for their story. To make it easier for them to go through all the interviews done, having written versions will enable them to quickly read through what was said, and highlight key points. A process that is much faster than having to listen to hours of recordings.

Translation and Transcription: How Are They Different?

I’m sure now you can clearly explain to your clients what translation and transcription mean without confusing them. Let’s move to the key differences between the two, which is the key question this article aims to answer.

1. Definition

If you only remember one difference between translation and transcription it is that transcription involves converting content into written form while translation has to do with the conversion of content into another language.

2. Languages

Transcription only deals with one language. Translation, on the other hand, has two or more languages involved. I want to reiterate what I said before to make this clear, in transcription the language of the content doesn’t change so the language the audio or video file is in, will be the same language used in the written text.

For translations, the language of the content changes into several other languages, for example, French, Italian, Chinese, Dutch, Polish, etc. How many languages the content is translated to depends on the number of people the client wants to reach with their translated content.

3. Skills

To do transcription you only need to be conversant with one language which is the source language. In translation, you must be fluent in two or more languages usually the source language and the language you’ll be translating the text into.

4. Form

Transcription is commonly done only in written form, but translations can be spoken or written. Remember the example I gave you above of a press briefing by a U.S. President, and another world leader? That is spoken translation (or interpreting, which is more commonly used). The other example I gave you about translating a Spanish document into English is written translation.

5. Knowledge

As a transcriptionist, because you’ll be writing exactly what is said in an audio or video file you don’t need to know colloquial expressions, idioms, etc. of the language you’re transcribing. That is not the case when it comes to translation. A good translator must know idioms and colloquial expressions of the language they are working with to be able to produce high-quality translations.

6. Source 

Without an audio source, you cannot do transcription. However, if you have a written text of what was said, for example, in a meeting you can do translations.


As a freelance translator, you will encounter situations where both transcription and translation are required. The best way to go about it is to begin with the transcription. You can do the transcription yourself, or work with a transcriptionist to get the written version of an audio file. Once done with the transcription you can then proceed to translate the content.

I have seen translators who translate directly from audio files. I disapprove of this method because the likelihood of the translated content having errors are high. So avoid it.

I hope this article has helped you better understand translation and transcription. The key takeaway from the article should be if you or a client have and audio that needs to be converted to text that’s a job for a transcriptionist. If a written text needs to be done in another language without changing the meaning, you need a translator!

Do you need high quality translators?

1 thought on “Translation and Transcription – What’s The Difference?

  1. Keep this going please, great job!

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