Here’s a quick but helpful insight from my experience in my Master’s in conference interpreting program this year (it’s going well!). In the translation world, translators typically work into their native language only. I would never, in a million years, translate into French unless it’s something really short, simple, and informal that a client needs just for purposes of “what does this say?”
In interpreting, that’s less of a hard and fast rule. Lots of interpreters work biactively (in both directions), between their A and B languages, A being their native language/mother tongue, and B being a non-native language that they interpret both from and into. This isn’t always the case: various entities (most notably some branches of the UN) use a “pure booth” system where interpreters work into their A language only. But for example as a court interpreter, you’re not only allowed but required to interpret in both directions; there’s simply no market for one-direction interpreting outside some very specific conference interpreting jobs.
If you’re coming from the translation world, this sounds kind of awful: I would never translate into my source language, and now I’m supposed to interpret into it?? But here’s the thing: when you’re interpreting from your A into your B, there’s actually an advantage: you (almost) always understand what the speaker said, which is important in a situation where you can’t stop to look things up. And when you understand what the speaker said, that opens the door to reformulating the word or phrase in some other way, which you can’t do if you’re interpreting from your B into your A and you simply hear a word you’ve never heard before.
This is fresh in my mind because it happened to me this week. In an in-class speech, a fellow student was giving a speech in English about a medical topic, and said, “My wife was pregnant, and the doctor told us that the baby was in the breech position.” Now, I have no clue what the French for “breech position” is (it turns out it’s présentation par le siège), but I understand the concept of breech position in English, and it’s easy to express in non-technical terms: the baby was upside down; the baby’s feet were going to be born first; the baby was head up instead of head down; even just “the baby was incorrectly positioned” would do the job in a pinch. there are lots of ways to handle it. So I had a moment of panic at the word “breech,” but it worked out fine.
On the other hand, sometimes when you’re interpreting from your B into your A (the only direction in which I translate); there’s a term you’ve simply never heard before and have no idea what to do with, and it’s not like you can stop to look it up. This happened to me recently as well: “Je travaille actuellement comme commissaire-priseur de bétail” (I currently work as a livestock auctioneer). I got “bétail,” but I honestly had never heard the French term for “auctioneer” before, let alone the two expressions together. So the only in-the-moment solution was to frame the sentence with no detail; I think I said, “And here, I’ll state my current profession.”
Definitely an interesting experience for anyone exploring the differences between translation and interpreting!