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In computer science, an interpreter is a computer program that directly executes instructions written in a programming or scripting language, without requiring them previously to have been compiled into a machine language program. An interpreter generally uses one of the following strategies for program execution:
- Parse the source code and perform its behavior directly;
- Translate source code into some efficient intermediate representation or object code and immediately execute that;
- Explicitly execute stored precompiled bytecode made by a compiler and matched with the interpreter Virtual Machine.
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Early versions of Lisp programming language and minicomputer and microcomputer BASIC dialects would be examples of the first type. Perl, Raku, Python, MATLAB, and Ruby are examples of the second, while UCSD Pascal is an example of the third type. Source programs are compiled ahead of time and stored as machine independent code, which is then linked at run-time and executed by an interpreter and/or compiler (for JIT systems). Some systems, such as Smalltalk and contemporary versions of BASIC and Java may also combine two and three. Interpreters of various types have also been constructed for many languages traditionally associated with compilation, such as Algol, Fortran, Cobol, C and C++.
While interpretation and compilation are the two main means by which programming languages are implemented, they are not mutually exclusive, as most interpreting systems also perform some translation work, just like compilers. The terms "interpreted language" or "compiled language" signify that the canonical implementation of that language is an interpreter or a compiler, respectively. A high-level language is ideally an abstraction independent of particular implementations.