Transcribing when a translator is present

We’ve just taken on a big project, bigger in fact than either we or our client realised at first, as he wasn’t sure how many hours of recording he had! All the files have the interviewer, the interviewee and a translator. We only have to transcribe the English – which is a good thing, as between us in the office we only have a handful of French and Spanish, and this is something a bit more exotic!

Should be easy, you’re probably thinking – after all, if the sound file is an hour long you’re probably only transcribing half an hour’s worth! So why, you might very reasonably ask, am I charging this client our standard rate, and not a reduced amount?

Well in fact I have offered a reduced rate if the recordings are really clear and the translator speaks excellent English – but we (my client and I) rather doubt there are any recordings like that! This is inevitable and I am in no way blaming the client, or indeed the translator! Of course in an ideal world, all recordings for transcription would take place in a quiet office space with the windows closed, no air conditioning on (because it can play havoc with the recorder!) and, where a translator is required, the translator speaking immaculate English with no accent, as well as speaking the tongue he’s translating from perfectly.

Unfortunately real life does rather tend to get in the way – and when you’re recording in rural China or in a war zone, or even an oral history at a little railway museum in the UK, all of which are projects we have worked on in the past, the chances of being able to find a nice, quiet office to work in are pretty small. The chances of finding a perfectly bilingual translator are even slighter!

So although we can, in theory, race through the non-English parts and just type the English, in this project the recording quality is quite poor, the translators’ English leaves much to be desired and many of the translators also have strong accents. Also, the nature of conversation between three people means that the discussions are not clearly and neatly divided into English and the other language. Often, while the translator is trying to do his bit in English, the interviewee thinks of something else he wanted to say and interrupts. Sometimes the translator is talking to the interviewee and then quickly throws a few words in English at the interviewer, before replying to the interviewee in the other language. So we really have to keep our ears ‘peeled’ and listen to everything, even though we can only understand half of it!

All these issues mean it’s taking about as long, or sometimes longer, to transcribe as a good quality, all English transcription, so it’s costing about the same. All I can say is it’s a good job that we all like a challenge at Penguin Transcription!

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