Javascript: Compiled, Transpiled or Interpreted?

Yes, finally you will get an answer to the question that has been robbing you of sleep all those countless nights but before we can understand what just-in-time compilation is, let's get some basics down mon petit cherie.

Compiled vs Transpiled vs Interpreted

Now be wary that there is an ever going battle between people online of what the actual difference is between these three but this the most common (and right, fight me) opinion.


Your code is translated into a language of a lower abstraction.

Michael from the office saying what

I'll try that again, a language that is readable for us humans is not readable for computers and vice versa. So a high level language such as Javascript or Python is easy to read by us humans but gibberish for a computer, while something as elegant as binary code is Shakespearian for a computer while for us stupid humans is just a bunch of zeros and ones.

A little example can be seen like this where abstraction levels go lower step for step:

  1. Javascript/Python - Easy to read, easy to write. A lot of complicated stuff happens behind the scenes and you don't have to worry about it.
  2. C/C++ - Things are a bit harder to read and write. You have to manage memory clean up and handle memory pointers. Not too bad but not as human friendly as the last abstraction level.
  3. Assembly - If you see someone proficient in assembly then you have witnessed divinity, bask in their radiance. Things barely make sense to normal humans here.
  4. Binary code - If you see someone proficient in binary code then you have witnessed a real life Terminator and you should propably run for you life. Everything is just zeros and ones, following a base 2 numeral system.

So what a compiled language means is basically taking a language of higher abstraction (human friendly) and turning it into something of a lower abstraction (computer friendly). This is very much an oversimplification and compilers do a lot of other cool super complicated stuff too like optimizing the code but you do not have to worry about that for now.

It's also worth noting that a compiled language is fully translated to a lower abstraction level before you can run it. This is worth keeping a note of for when we talk about interpreted languages later.


Your code is translated into a language of the same abstraction level.

Hopefully you understand somewhat what that means based on the previous information but let me give you some examples.

Take Typescript and Javascript for example. When you "compile" Typescript it is translated into Javascript. Typescript and Javascript are on a similar abstraction level for us humans, both are easy to read and understand. So when a language is translated from one language to another language on the same level we call this transpiled.

Another example is using something like Babel that takes modern Javascript and translates it to older Javascript so that older browsers also can understand it. Both modern and old Javascript is of the same abstraction level, so instead of saying it was compiled to a older version, we say it was transpiled instead.


An interpreted language is a lot like a compiled language. The language is translated from a high abstraction language into a lower abstraction language, but remember what I told you to take a note of? The main difference is that where in a compiled language the whole code is being translated before it is ran, an interpreted language allows you to have an interpreter that step for step translates the language into a language your specific OS understands while it is running.

The bonus is that you do not have to compile the language every time you want to run it and if an interpreter exists for the target machine then the language can also be translated so that it can understand it. But as you might have suspected translating a language step by step as you are running it is not very efficient, which means performance takes a hit.

Javascript - Just in time compiled

So back to the star of the show. What is Javascript, is it compiled or interpreted? - Yes.

Jared from Silicon Valley asking which one

Javascript is just-in-time compiled, but what the hell does that even mean. See in the early days of Javascript when the internet was still young and sites couldn't do much it was an interpreted language since performance wasn't much of an issue. But as the web evolved and the Javascript written became more and more complex browsers implemented more modern engines which used a mix of interpretation and compilation called just-in-time compiled.

How a just-in-time compiler works is that it runs through the code the same way an interpreter would but it also utilizes a profiler that constantly monitors the code that is being run. If it notices the same code being run many times the profiler will class that part of the code as "warm" and send it to be compiled and saved so that for future uses the compiled code can be used instead which will perform much better.

Now as code keeps getting warmer and warmer eventually it will be what the profiler calls "hot" which results in the compiler trying to make the code even more efficient by further optimizing it and instead using the new optimized version of the code for even better performance.

Now you are probably wondering, why not just compile and optimize the whole code? See every time code is compiled and optimized the code execution has to slow down which is why only warm and hot code is compiled. Compiling and optimizing a line of code that is run once is a waste since the interpreter will read the code, compile it, optimize it and save it for later all which take time but no time is being saved since it will never use this optimized code again.

Optimizing a line of code that is run 10 000 times takes a little initial hick up but more than makes up for it later due to the performance increase for that part of the code.

So that's it in simple terms how just-in-time compilation works in Javascript, I hope you learned something new and remember that the browser engines are complicated monsters and have many optimization techniques that were not included in this article. Thank you for reading!