Why you need to be human to produce a good transcription

13 Mar

Suitably funereal transcription kitWhen I receive a recording for a new transcription client and tell them I’ve loaded it into my transcription management software, I’m sometimes asked if that does the transcribing for me. Um, no.

While there are of course software packages out there that are very good at working with a single voice dictating, even those can sometimes struggle. I know this, because I’ve edited work that has been dictated in this way – and it can often be rife with homophones.

Why use a human transcriber?

I’ve been providing transcription services for several years now. While a machine might be suitable for taking down the words of a single, non-accented speaker enunciating clearly into a good quality recording apparatus, with no background noise, no interruptions and no acronyms or jargon, the projects I’ve worked on have included some or all of these features:

  • High levels of background noise – interviews in cafes with espresso machines whooshing and spoons clinking in cups
  • People talking while they’re eating and eating while they’re talking
  • Interruptions from waiters / room service / other members of the band or group
  • High levels of tape noise leaving me straining to hear what anyone’s saying
  • Multiple speakers including many people with similar voices around a conference table
  • Overlapping speech
  • Non-native English accents or heavy regional accents
  • Very technical content – jargon and acronyms galore
  • Creative content – album names, track names, novel titles, band names, author names
  • Requests to provide the transcription missing out ums and ers through to smoothing the English to make it read as standard English

As a native English speaker specialising in working with music journalists and non-native speakers of English, I can cope with all of these, with some rewinding and checking. I doubt that the most sophisticated dictation software could do so, as yet. I might be wrong of course (let me know if I am!).

Understanding what’s being said on a transcription

The first issue is actually hearing and understanding what’s being said. I have a good ear and a native English speaker’s ability to predict what will come next in a sentence / how sentence structures work, plus my experience working with speakers of and texts in non-native English allows me to do this for native Arabic, Chinese, Eastern European language etc. speakers. My ear can filter out background noise where sophisticated software can only go so far. And I can hear around the clink of teaspoons or glasses chinking to grasp what’s being said.

Checking the content in a transcription

When one of my journalist clients sends me a tape, I check who the musician / band is and look them up (usually on Wikipedia for the general information, as their own websites are usually a bit harder to plumb for information). When I’m working on an international conference I will seek out or be given a conference schedule, list of attendees, etc. When I’m working with technical content I will look up information on that topic.

All this allows me to produce a transcription which the client will not have to check for themselves, or if they do check it (which I do recommend), there won’t be too much to change. And I won’t be embarrassed by too many mis-hearings. Just try popping a few names of country leaders, bands or albums into a Word document and running a spell checker and imagine what an automated dictation program would do with these terms!

Speech on a tape to words in a document

Very occasionally I’ll be asked to record exactly what the people on the tape say, including ums, ahs, repetitions and pauses. At the moment, I’m transcribing some roleplays for students learning how to operate a telephone helpline. Here it’s important to capture all the nuances of the conversation and I’m splitting the utterances into sections, numbering them, and including all the ums and ahs.

Normally, my clients will require some smoothing out.

  • Most of my journalists like to have an indication of when their subject slowed down or had to mull over something and ask me to include notes of those pauses.
  • Business people producing podcasts and telecasts often want a fairly accurate transcription, but smoothed out to eliminate ums, ahs, pauses and repetitions, so they have a good product to sell or include in packages for their clients.
  • Some international conferences want to avoid embarrassment for their delegates by having their English rewritten as I transcribe to appear as close as possible to native British (or American) English
  • I have worked with authors who start off with a tape and want it to turn into something they can publish as a book (this, unlike all of the other options, involves two processes: transcription and then heavy editing and rewriting).

Why should I use a human transcriber and not a software program?

2 topsI think I’ve answered that for you now. You should also consider using a human transcriber who’s a native speaker of the language you’re having transcribed: there are websites out there where you can find very cheap transcribers; they are often not going to be native English speakers and while they will get the gist of the tape down, I’d be unsure whether they could give you the service you needed.

I’ve written another article about how to get into transcribing as a job and how to prepare yourself for what is often a fun and rather creative area of work, and one about the technology transcribers use.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking of booking in a transcriber, do have a look at my page about my transcription services, and get in touch if you want to ask about what I can do for you. I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into a transcriber’s work! Do leave a comment if you have …

If you want to learn more about Transcription as a career, buy my book: A Quick Guide to Transcription as a Career – buy from Amazon UK or visit the book’s web page for worldwide links and news.


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26 responses to “Why you need to be human to produce a good transcription

  1. mrsvjdw

    March 13, 2013 at 10:18 am

    OOh, maybe transcribing is something I could take up eventually, when I have that wonderful thing of a part-time library job!? I definitely want a portfolio career but no idea how to get there 😦


    • Liz at Libro

      March 13, 2013 at 10:23 am

      It can be fun, it can be very tiring, and you have to be very careful about posture and RSI and be able to type super-fast. But watch this space next week when I’ll talk about how to get into it as a career and whether it’s actually worth doing it.


  2. perfectcircle77

    March 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Interesting. When I stopped subtitling, voice recognition was becoming a big thing and I didn’t like it – it wasn’t anywhere near as good as our typing and was often riddled with mistakes. It usually took as long to edit and research the transcriptions the software to produced than it did to do it myself from scratch. A lot of tv subtitles are done this way now, especially live, BBC news and their often hilarious mishearings spring to mind.


    • Liz at Libro

      March 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Michelle – I was hoping you’d drop by and share that experience! The annoying this is that people usually assume there’s a human subtitler behind those errors – I always disabuse them if I catch someone assuming that!


  3. ianbraisby

    March 14, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Great article, totally agree about software being unable to replicate human ability when it comes to nuanced and sophisticated language. I face similar challenges convincing people of that fact in my translation business. Take the example “the clutch pedal is depressed” – you want it to mean that it has been pushed down, but software could easily translate it to suggest the pedal needs medication and therapy!


    • Liz at Libro

      March 14, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Thank you for your interesting comment, Ian – and yes, there are certainly parallels in both translation and its near cousin, localisation, not to mention proofreading and indexing! I love the example, too!


  4. jocuri cu dinozauri carnivori

    March 30, 2013 at 4:00 am

    When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added”
    checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Thank you!


    • Liz at Libro

      March 30, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Hi there, you will need to do this yourself – there will be a link to “Manage subscriptions” at the bottom of the email you receive, and when you click on that you will get boxes to check to remove the ones you no longer wish to subscribe to. Hope that helps!


  5. Toplicence recensie

    November 21, 2013 at 3:54 am

    Hi there would you mind letting me know which hosting company you’re working with?
    I’ve loaaded yur blog in 3 completely different
    browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then
    most. Can you recommend a good internet hosting provider at a fair
    price? Many thanks, I appreciate it!


    • Liz at Libro

      November 21, 2013 at 10:36 am

      Hi there, I just use although I am thinking of moving to self-hosting soon. So I can’t recommend anyone, I’m afraid.



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