The One Who Hears Everything
I’m the one who listens.
I’m the one who records.
I’ve heard your ums and ahs.
I’ve heard your evasive answers and your excuses.
I’ve been there as you’ve laughed and cried.
But you’ve never met me. And I’ve never seen you.
I don’t even know your names.
A transcriptionist is a person who turns audio files of spoken words into text files of written words.
Yes, we still exist. Technology is improving significantly and today there are a variety of programs that will listen to your voice and transcribe your words automatically. A decade or two ago, these programs needed to be ‘trained’ by being given lots of samples of your voice to practise on, after which you had to correct it, to make it more and more accurate. Today, a lot of that manual adjusting is no longer necessary.
But there are still, at least for now, things that a human can do, which a computer can’t.
A computer still has trouble distinguishing between voices in conversation, particularly if the voices have diverse accents or styles. A computer gets confused by all those verbal tics and fillers: ‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘sorta’, ‘like’, and can make some interesting grammar and sentence structure choices to cope with them. A computer also misses nuances such as laughter, coughing or tears.
And, depending on what you need the transcription for, these can be important to capture.
As a transcriptionist, I have typed up court hearings, medical interviews, academic research interviews, focus groups, media presentation coaching, online course lectures, formal investigations and many more events involving interactions between human beings.
It’s a fascinating, informative, emotional job. I love it, even when the interview is on a subject completely alien or boring to me. Hearing the passion in others’ voices can lead to a blooming of interest in yourself — just think of how your enjoyment of something — music, a foreign country, an event — is increased just by being with someone who’s loving it.
Of course, I could not be a transcriptionist without having a strong sense of ethics. I will not disclose to you any details of any particular project I have been involved with. Suffice to say, I have heard a lot.
Most of the time, transcribing is pretty easy.
You sit at your desk, ergonomically tuned for comfort, your headphones on and your foot on the foot pedal, at the ready. A foot pedal is essential. It allows you to pause the recording without removing your hands from the keys, allowing them to continue typing and catch up to the audio. If you time the press of your foot just right, you can continue typing without a pause, as the audio begins again. The time saved is significant, especially when you’re earning a fixed rate per completed transcript.
You sit still for a long time. An average, experienced transcriptionist might take three hours to transcribe one hour of audio. Less if it’s clear and only involves one speaker most of the time. More if the audio is unclear, there are many speakers, the accents are unfamiliar or there are annotation requirements, such as including timestamps for each utterance. All the while, your fingers are flying and the rest of you remains still, listening.
It’s freezing to sit still for so long, or at least I find it so. I must rug up with multiple jumpers or crank up the heat. Movement, a quick stretch or a cup of tea break every hour is essential or I would not last the distance. It can also be exhausting. Sounds silly, I know, but after three hours of solid transcribing, I’m feeling pretty tired. If I have to push on for another two or three hours for an urgent project, I’m completely done. After all, accuracy is vital, and you can’t let your concentration drift, even for a minute. Try concentrating on just one stimulus without a break for even a few minutes. It’s hard work. Still, compared to plenty of other work, transcribing is a pretty cushy number. I can do it in my pyjamas, in my own home, in my own time — what’s not to love?
Yes, most of the time, transcribing is easy.
But not all of the time. Sometimes I find myself talking back at the speakers, safe in my world distanced in time and space from the conversation. ‘Yeah, right,’ I’ll mutter, hearing a possible lie. ‘That’s ridiculous’, hearing a groundless rumour or accusation. ‘Are you kidding? Why??’ on hearing about a foolish action on someone’s part. My reactions do not affect my work. My fingers type on automatic pilot, noting what they say, not analysing it. I simply note it all down in black and white, for other minds to parse.
It makes me feel human rather than an extension of a laptop, reacting to what I hear, even if it’s not aimed at me, specifically.
Mostly I maintain a professional distance.
Then there was the time I didn’t. I was transcribing a fairly standard interview of a medical professional. They were talking about their work, quite mundane stuff to me, and suddenly they were describing the horrific death of a toddler. As the monotonous delivery penetrated my zone of concentration, I found myself in an instant completely overwhelmed. I went from calm to hysterical in less than a second. Tearing my headphones off, I shoved my chair as far away from the desk as it could go, hugged myself and sobbed.
That one really got to me. Perhaps it was my experience as a parent, perhaps it was the suddenness and horror of it all. Perhaps I was having a moment of vulnerability which I did not recognise consciously, but which exploded to the foreground through that external stimulus.
It was the only time I have ever had to take a physical and temporal break from an assignment. Fortunately I had some days’ grace before it was due. It took three days for me to be able to return, and by then, the horror had subsided and everything continued as normal.
That one really threw me in a way no rude, hateful or offensive words had ever done.
So think of us, the ones you don’t see, the ones who give you what you need to be able to analyse, inspect, consider. We are still human. Make the most of what we can offer, while we’re still here to do it, because like many things it seems today, we may not be around forever. On behalf of a dying race, I say thank you for giving us entry into your lives and your projects. It’s been an honour to be part of your lives.