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Translation? Transcription? What’s the difference?

Revised: August 2021

They may sound alike, but the two words “translation” and “transcription” mean very different things in our industry. In this article, we explain the difference between audio or video transcription, and translation work.

The dictionary definitions:




1. express the sense of (words or text) in another language.




1. put (thoughts, speech, or data) into written or printed form.

While there is a difference between transcription and translation, the definitions of the words show that there is also some similarity. Audio/video transcription can sometimes be the first step towards translation. And audio/video translation can involve putting speech into written form, which sounds a lot like transcribing.

Put simply, translation is the process of taking a piece of audio or written text and converting it into another language. Transcription, on the other hand, is a written version of an audio or video file in the same language as the original.  

If you’re confused about the difference, or which service you need for a project, don’t worry; you’re not alone! Hopefully we can help clear things up.

When transcription is needed

The easiest way to remember the difference between the two words is that transcription produces a script (or something very much like a script). When we transcribe audio or video, we write out exactly what is heard. Sometimes this is literally word for word, “um’s” and “ah’s” included. This is called a verbatim transcript. Or, a transcriptionist can clean up the spoken word, removing those quirks of natural speech and writing out a smoothly flowing version of the original audio. This is known as edited or clean transcription.

When might you need a transcription service? There are many reasons. You may want:

  • a transcript of audio content for the deaf
  • transcription that can be converted into subtitles or closed captions for a video
  • a transcript that can be used to easily translate content into other languages
  • a verbatim transcript that can be kept for legal, technical, or professional reference

All of these are common reasons why people come to us looking for transcription services. But, then, what about translation? When might you need translation services rather than transcription?

When translation is needed

Audio translation is much trickier than a simple verbatim transcription, or even an edited transcription. In audio translation, someone fluent in both the original and target language must review the content and translate the sense of what is being said into the target language. That usually requires a lot more thought than just a word-for-word translation.

Bad Subtitles for Movie
Bootleg DVD copies are notorious for having some painful (or hilarious, depending on your point of view) poorly translated subtitles. That’s meant to be ‘Massachusetts State trooper’ here – Awkward.

We’ve all seen pictures of funny signs or messages that have been “lost in translation”. That happens because every language has a unique set of slang, colloquialisms, and common phrases that simply don’t translate word for word. In Spanish, there’s a saying, “En boca cerrada no entran moscas” Literally, that means “Flies don’t enter a closed mouth.” Which an English speaker might or might not be able to figure out, is a way of saying “Keep your mouth shut.” A skilled translator will be able to pick out these phrases that could cause confusion, and translate the sense of them into the target language.

Words vs. meaning

Hopefully this clarifies the problem of transcription versus translation. What it comes down to is words versus meaning. So if you have a project where you need audio converted into written text, you need transcription. If you need the meaning of words in one language converted to another language, with the meaning kept intact, you need translation. We also have difference processes depending if they need to be used for subtitles or voiceovers.

Send us a tweet if this helped clear things up! And let us know if you have any other translation, voiceover, or subtitling questions you’d like us to help answer in a future article!