The Difference Between Speaking a Language and Translating It

The Difference Between Speaking a Language and Translating It (A language graduate’s perspective)

The differences between speaking a language and translating it are countless. My job, passion and intimate relationship with the language industry have led me to realise that the differences between speaking a language and translating it are countless. Naturally, depending on the language combination (mine being English/Afrikaans), the context of the speaking situation and brief of the translation there will be various challenges and differences. The fundamental differences that I (and I’m sure many other languages lovers) have experienced are as follows.

One of the most obvious differences between speech and translation is that speech is verbal, with explanatory tones and intonation. Translation being written, must convey the same message using the written word alone. On the linguistics side the the major differences are the pronunciation and spelling of words as well as a lack of standardized terminology between languages. Knowing how to pronounce a word is also much easier than remembering how to spell it, considering that there may be various ways of spelling a word across English dialects alone.

Language is acquired naturally through exposure to it but the nuances of writing. translating and localization of languages require specific training combined with work experience in the subject matter at hand

Spoken language tends to be more informal (slang) and often involves the use of simpler language with shorter sentences to aid with comprehension and retention since speech is fleeting. Translation/writing generally consists of a standardised form with formal language use. Translations often contain longer and more structured sentences/paragraphs. This can be done since a written text which has been translated can always be read repeatedly and analysed for a thorough understanding.

The context of a speaking situation is often shared knowledge between participants who are present whereas this is not always the case when it comes to translation. Thus translations tend to be longer and in more depth than speech since the content must be clear, unambiguous and cover as much as possible to reach numerous audiences.

When it comes to speech, to get a certain message across communication often takes place on more than one level, for example:

  • Through the use of tone,
  • pauses,
  • interaction with the audience,
  • facial expression and body language.

In terms of translation this is done using punctuation, headings, layout, white space, diagrams and visuals.

Translation can be said to be more complex and difficult than knowing and speaking a language since a speaker has significantly more control over what a listener will hear than what a translator has over what the reader of the translation will read.


Here at IL Consultancy a strict quality-control process is the foundation of our professional translation service. Translators with proven expertise in your industry or subject matter work alongside proofreaders and editors associated with the Professional Editors’ Group (PEG). All our translators are also members of the South African Translators’ Institute (SATI). They deliver material equal to its original form, but adapted to your cultural and intellectual environment. Regulatory and legislative nuances are also incorporated to provide legitimacy and contextual relevance. You receive a translated version specifically adapted to your needs and your current business environment.

Contact us now for a quote and see our translations page for more information.