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Difference Between an Interpreter and a Compiler

Published October 18, 2021

It is not uncommon for people to confuse an interpreter and a compiler. It can be difficult to understand the difference between these two programs, but they are actually quite different in what they do. Programming languages are the backbone of computing. When you use a programming language, your computer translates it into something understandable to its hardware. 

A compiler translates a program's high-level instructions into low-level machine code that can run on a computer. An interpreter executes the program by translating it one statement at a time into a low-level machine code. This blog post will go over some of the differences between interpreters and compilers.

What is an Interpreter?

The job of the interpreter is to execute the high-level instructions written in our programming language. An interpreter does not compile or translate an entire application, but instead reads and immediately carries out each instruction individually before moving on to the next line. This type of execution can be slow because every step must run through software translation for low-level computer languages like Assembly Language (ASM). 

However, interpreters are easier to write than compilers. Since there is no need for complex optimizations that will take care of generating efficient machine code over many lines of source code. Generally speaking, an interpreter's main purpose is just to get your application up and running quickly so you can test your code.

What is a Compiler?

A compiler can take a lot of time depending on an application's size and complexity. But once it has finished compiling, you will be able to run your compiled software quickly without any slow down in performance during each step of execution since there are no interpreter steps needed anymore. The downside with using compilers though is that they typically require complex optimization plans built-in just so the final executable file runs well enough by itself after compilation has been completed successfully 100% of the time. This type of translation takes much more work than interpreters do which means there may sometimes be bugs left behind in the compiled executable.

Differences between Interpreter & Compiler

The difference in execution time

This is one of the main differences between an interpreter and a compiler. Interpreters are generally much quicker to execute, but compilers take longer because they have more work to do behind the scenes before running your application. Overall though interpreters are generally slower than compilers.

Compiled code is the way it is because of optimizations done by the compiler. These are not necessary for interpreters since their job ends once execution has finished instead of optimizing after all source code instructions have been executed as compiled applications must do.

Difference in performance

If you want high-performance software that runs quickly without any slowdowns, then using a compiled executable file would be best compared to just simply executing each instruction line by line through an interpreter.

Debugging difference

When using an interpreter, you can use it to debug your source code line by line. If there are any issues with the application during testing then this is a very quick debugging method. This is because all debugging needs to be done is just applying breakpoints at each step of execution instead of having to go through complex optimizations over many lines of compiled code.

However, compiler debugging is much more difficult than interpreter debugging. When you run your compiled application with a debugger attached to it then the only way to debug what's going wrong in your code is by using object memory dumps or reading assembly language (ASM) instructions one at a time.

Comparison Chart: Interpreter Vs Compiler

ParametersInterpreterCompiler
PerformanceLessMore
DebuggingMore effectiveLess effective
Overall timeSlowFast
Programming languagePythonC,C++
Ease of workingMoreLess

Similarities between an Interpreter & Compiler

Both interpreters and compilers must go through a translation process. One similarity between an interpreter and a compiler is that they both have to translate your source code line by line. However, the difference comes in how each of them does this job. Since one does it all at once while the other breaks it down into smaller steps. You can't really say which method is better because there are advantages and disadvantages with either approach depending on what you want from your application's performance speed-wise.

FAQs

Which is more effective?

Both interpreters and compilers can be equally effective. It just depends on what you want to use your application for, how complex it is, etc. Both compilers and interpreters have their own strengths and weaknesses depending on what you are trying to use them for. For example, Interpreters make it much easier to debug errors because you can set breakpoints throughout your executable file in order to see where the problem lies. Whereas with a Compiler there is no way of doing this unless you go through each step of execution which will be very time-consuming and tedious if not impossible depending on how complex your application's code is.

Which one should I use?

It's up to the developer themselves which they choose between an interpreter or a compiler because there are pros and cons with both of these methods depending on their individual needs.

Which is easier to use?

Interpreted code is generally much simpler for beginners to learn how to write. Because there are not many complex optimizations that need to be applied in order for your application's code to be programmatically executed line by line through an interpreter. However, this simplicity comes at the cost of lower performance speed since interpreters are generally much slower.

Conclusion

If you’ve ever wondered what an interpreter is or how compilers work, this blog post should have answered your questions. The next time someone asks about the difference between a compiler and an interpreter, we hope that you will know the answer!

References

Feel free to comment and discuss about the article in the comment space below if you have any information or remarks to add. If you think we made a mistake, you can also report it there.
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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
All Posts Written By Nicolas Seignette

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