→ Jack Callil
People just don’t speak clearly. When we speak, we treat words badly. We never finish our thoughts, leaving half-sentences stranded everywhere. We compress and stretch words like elastic bands, you betcha we do. None of this matters in everyday babble, but when you’re transcribing, each quirk is a little roadblock in the way of comprehension. And, specifically in my job transcribing police interviews, these quirks of language affect the meaning and possible interpretation of each case.
Each transcript I write is used in court, so finger-numbing finickyness is expected to accurately reflect the nuances of each interview. If a subject is nervous, speaking in half-sentences, talking over the police officer, this must all be clear on the page. My job involves a lot of attention to detail, down to the most innocuous parts of grammar and punctuation. Could the presence or lack of a comma influence the interpretation of what a subject said? You wouldn’t think so, yet there’s a big difference between these two:
1, Q: John, why did you go to that house last night?
A: I went to that house, to be honest, with her.
2, Q: You went with her?
A: No! I went to that house to be honest with her.
It’s clear that in the first case it seems the subject is saying they’re being honest about going to a house with a woman, yet they then clarify they went to a house to be honest with a woman. The presence of two little black blotches easily bent the language. So, the job isn’t really just typing, it’s about communication. It’s the largest, challenging, and at times confusing part of the job. It’s asking yourself: what’s really being said here?
The largest obstacles in properly conveying meaning is the everyday patois of how we actually talk. When you really listen to someone talk, you realise that rarely do we speak clearly in complete, logical sentences. We speak in tangents, slang, fragments. We mumble. Man, do we mumble. And because of what’s potentially at stake when transcribing a police interview, accuracy is essential—a painstaking level of accuracy. For example, when a police officer (marked as Q) and the subject (marked as A) speak over each other, we have to mark this overlap with hyphen triplets, like the following:
Q: Right, so after you saw - - -
A: I swear, after I saw - - -
Q: - - - her, what did - - -
A: - - - her I watched the - - -
Q: - - - you do?
A: - - - Bachelorette. I love that show.
Or, when someone speaks in a series of jumps, repeats themselves, or wanders off on other ideas mid-sentence, we denote it with a single hyphen.
Q: So you weren’t at - at the bank?
A: No, I was at the - no, wait, like I said, I was watching The Bachelorette. I mean, Sophie Monk, I - I - sorry, I just have a lot of - look, I have a lot of feelings for that woman.
Q: Right. So, you weren’t - - -
A: I’d never miss a - look, can we change the subject?
None of this is particularly noticed during the common flow of conversation. It’s really how we move from topic to topic, sort of haphazardly jumping around as ideas ping off in our heads. Yet, on the page it’s strikingly apparent, and also essential to transcribe properly.
Beyond this, another challenge is catching all the bizarre little tics we constantly pepper our language with. It’s surprising how unwillingly we simply filter these out when we’re listening to someone. We only really notice when they’re used in excess. You’ll be familiar with these, they range more phrasal ones such as ‘you know what I mean?’, ‘like I said’, and ‘to be honest’, to singular twitches like ‘yeah’, ‘well’, ‘I mean’, and the teenage-revered ‘like’. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Q: O.K. So, you were watching the Bachelorette then.
A: Yeah, well, you know what I mean, I just, like, love Sophie Monk. She’s, like, just really, yeah, like, you know - - -
Q: Yeah, I’m familiar with - - -
A: - - - like, she’s a total legend, yeah. I mean, I just know, like, I didn’t assault anyone ’cause, like, you know, I’d never miss an episode, yeah.
We don’t realise it at the time, but it’s our way of giving ourselves a million little breathers to understand what the hell we’re talking about. Fillers such as ‘like’, ‘yeah’, ‘I mean’ and ‘well’ are really just the spoken equivalents of the comma. And it’s these little words are both infuriating and interesting parts of the job. Particularly because of a phenomenon termed ‘perceptual restoration’, where our minds predict words two-tenths of a second before actually hearing them. It’s useful for everyday speech, allowing us to understand each other even with peripheral noise and interruption, but it’s a constant road-block when transcribing. When checking my work, I’ll always find buried innumerable little words—usually innocuous ones like ‘was’ or ‘and’ – but words that were never actually said. My brain just makes them up, filling them in like holes in a wall.
Finally, another integral part of transcribing is slang. Tiny inflections and ad-lib word-smithing that communicates what we want to say but quicker, and yet also unwittingly reveals who we are. It’s important to let a transcript speak for itself in this regard, so to best encapsulate the character of each speaker we allow a variety of colloquial terms to go on the page. Pasted up next to my desk there’s a list of them all, and here’s about half of them:
Betcha = Bet you I Gunna = Going to
Gimme = Give me Mm’hm = Yes
Helluva = Hell of a Mm’mm = No
Wanna = Want to ’Cause= Because
Eh? = Pardon? ’Em = Them
Alky = Alcohol Sorta = Sort of
Fella = Fellow Ya = You, not your
Gotta = Got to Kinda = Kind of
Uey = U-turn S’pose = Suppose
While these seem irrelevant to transcribe, they constitute the character of a person. It can reflect an attitude, a personality, a regional dialect, a class, and/or an education. As well as everything I’ve mentioned, it’s the malleability of someone’s language that can indicate a breadth of information about them. Beyond this, the fickle nature of how we speak can distort language right down to its smallest parts. So being a transcriptionist is like being a studier of insects, kneeling down on all fours with a magnifying glass, parsing apart one word from another.