A well-known situation: you are at a party, and somebody asks “So, what do you do?”. As a translator, I find myself explaining the following things:
I do not translate books
And also: translating books is not my dream job. I find it very tedious, and it does not pay well. Instead, I translate web texts, brochures and newsletters for various companies. Every day is different, and the pay is a lot better! (Of course, many translators do translate books, and love doing so, but it is not the “standard job” of a translator as many people seem to think.)
I am not an interpreter
Being a translator means you translate written text from one language to another. Being an interpreter means you translate (interpret!) spoken words, for example at a legal hearing or an international conference. Being an interpreter is really hard and I do not think I would be very good at it!
I am English, therefore I translate into English
My translation should be smooth and grammatically correct. It is going to be read by native speakers, so it should be translated by a native speaker. Someone who learned the language at school or university can never write as naturally as a native speaker, so a (good) translator always only ever translates into his or her native language.
Robots will not be taking over my job soon
Machine translation is getting better and better and I think we will see the point quite soon where it is good enough to translate legal texts and technical manuals*; the kind of texts where the translation doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to be understandable. But I don’t translate these kinds of texts, I translate things like brochures, where it is really important that the translation has the right tone of voice. Machines can’t do that yet, so I am safe for now!
Translation is not a simple matter of input leads to output
People seem to think that, if they were to give the same text to two different translators, they would end up with the same translation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every word has dozens of translations, and every sentence has thousands. Translation is a careful process of weighing all the options and choosing what is best. You could give the same text to one hundred translators and you would get one hundred different translations. Some of them good, and some of them bad.
Yes, it does matter who you hire to do a translation
You need an experienced professional to find the right tone and make the right decisions. No, your cousin who spent a year abroad cannot do it.
*Many companies think this point has already been reached, in fact, and neural network machine translation does come up with phenomenal results. However, even with the latest, most high-tech solutions, I still see the problem that when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong, and that part of the translation will be unintelligible at best, and incorrect at worst. This happens when the machine cannot interpret the source properly; perhaps when there has been a typo, or the writer just used an unusual sentence. So even though 95% of the translation might be amazingly good, the 5% that isn’t means that you still really need a human editor to check the translation against the source. I think that 5% will be solved soon, but as I said above, I think it will take longer for machines to be able to find the right tone of voice.