Transcription is an interesting activity. I find being a good transcriber takes a healthy mix of creative and non-creative thinking, left-brain and right-brain awareness. The transcriber is both writer and editor. We have to try to synthesize people’s sometimes somewhat incoherent thoughts into an easily readable form. The transcriber has to be acutely aware of the rules of grammar, yet also have an appreciation for the fact that we humans hardly ever abide by those rules in our speech. Transcription is a little bit like translation in that sense: it both adds meaning and takes meaning away.
It’s interesting that sometimes you’ll listen to someone speak and they’re clearly whip smart, but because they’re so smart they’re constantly switching between ideas, letting thoughts trail off and smash into the next one. These transcripts tend to be train wrecks: massive run-on sentences, em dashes (this mark: —) all over the place. I feel for the reader when I transcribe someone like that; it makes me want to reach out and tell the speaker to slow down, take a breath, and finish their thought, if only for the sanity of their listeners or readers. I’ll also run into a similar situation where someone will be talking and say something very casually, so that you hardly even notice it, but once it’s written on the page you can see the profundity or beauty of the words.
Essentially, my point is this: transcription makes you stop and listen, really think about the words that are being spoken. Transcription seems simple enough, until you try it yourself. Then you realize that written language and spoken language tend to abide by almost completely different rules, with the written language almost always trying to play catch-up with the spoken language.
There are almost always multiple ways that one can render a spoken sentence; it’s the transcriber’s job to pick the one that most closely resembles the nuance implied by the cadence, tone, and thought processes of the speaker. That, to me, is the blend of artistry and craftsmanship that go into transcription.