Compilation and interpretation are the two primary methods for executing code in the field of programming. Compilers and interpreters are necessary tools for computers to understand and execute high-level programming languages. Although they have this in common, the ways to achieve this and how it affects the performance of the program are very different.

To better understand their respective functions in the software development process, this article will explore the main differences between interpreters and compilers.

What are compilers and interpreters?

Compiler

The complete source code of a program created in a high-level programming language is simultaneously translated into machine code (binary code) by a compiler, a specialized tool. Multiple stages of the compilation process are typical, including lexical analysis, syntactic analysis, semantic analysis, optimization, and code generation. A stand-alone executable file created by the compiler can be run directly by the operating system.

Interpreter

An interpreter, on the other hand, is a program that reads a program’s source code line by line and immediately executes it without first creating a file of intermediate machine code. The interpreter quickly executes each statement after translating it into machine code or intermediate code, rather than translating the entire program at once. This means that when the program is run, the source code is read and translated in real time.

Comparison of compilation and interpretation

Implementation process

The execution process is one of the key differences between interpreters and compilers. Before running, the compiler converts the complete source code into machine code and creates a separate executable file. As a result of the conversion being completed in advance, the created software often runs faster. However, the initial compilation process can take a while, especially for large programs.

Interpreter, on the other hand, does not create a separate executable. Instead, it executes the source code line by line as it reads it and executes it immediately. As a result, development input can be provided more quickly, as changes can be tested immediately without the need for recompilation. However, because of the potential cost of the interpretation process, interpreted programs are usually slower than compiled ones.

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Portability

Compiled applications are closely tied to a specific operating system and hardware architecture because compilers produce machine code unique to the target platform. A program compiled for one platform may not be able to run on another platform without modification or recompilation due to this lack of portability.

Instead of creating machine code files, interpreters execute the source code immediately, so they are often platform neutral. This makes it easy to port interpreted programs between multiple systems, provided the correct interpreter is available for each target platform.

Error detection

The methods used to detect errors during compilation and interpretation are also different. The compiler thoroughly examines the entire source code before generating machine code. As a result, it can detect various errors during compilation, including logic errors, type problems, and syntax errors. The compiler will generate an error message listing all errors found in the code, making it easier for developers to find and fix them.

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The interpreter, on the other hand, stops the operation when it encounters the first error in the code. As a result, error detection is faster with interpreted languages. However, because the compiler only reports the first error it finds, other problems with the code may go unreported until the initial error is fixed and the code is re-run.