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Context is Key

Context is key

I think one of the main reasons I love proofreading transcripts is that it’s fun ferreting out and changing those odd little mistakes where the sentence someone’s typed makes perfect sense, but in context it’s nonsense. It’s a bit like doing a puzzle really.  Context is so often the key.

It never ceases to amaze me that people providing transcripts sometimes get it so wrong – but I won’t deny that I also make mistakes – that’s why proofreading back through is so important! An example of a mistake I proofread the other day was a colloquialism. Of course not everyone is familiar with all colloquialisms, but I was a bit surprised the transcriber didn’t highlight this one as a query. It went something like this*: ‘I like doing x, but then I like doing y too. X is fun but takes a long time. Y is a bit less fun but it’s quick. It’s swings and roundabouts really.’ The transcriber had put ‘swims and roundabouts’ which at least gave me a chuckle. There’s no excuse for it though – when someone is transcribing this and types ‘swims and roundabouts’ a ‘that’s odd’ flag should automatically start waving in their brain. Then all you have to do is look it up on dear ol’ Google. You immediately get, other than a few references to an Angry Birds theme park that will include ‘a mixture of themed swims and roundabouts…’, a notification saying ‘Did you mean swings and roundabouts?

Then there’s the homonyms of course, or strictly speaking homophones – where words sound identical but are actually spelt differently. The obvious suspects are things like ‘they’re’ and ‘their’, or ‘aloud’ and ‘allowed’, but to be honest I wouldn’t employ anyone who couldn’t manage those! It’s the subtle ones that do still crop up though:

  • ‘It was all together a fine kettle of fish’ is wrong. It should be ‘It was altogether a fine kettle of fish’, because ‘all together’ means various things in one place, but altogether means completely.
  • ‘I was going to brooch the subject’ is nonsense because brooch is a piece of jewellery. The word should be ‘broach’ which means to bring up for discussion.
  • ‘The road was tortuous’ or ‘the road was torturous’? Well, either could potentially make sense. The first one means the road was full of twists and turns and the second one means it was full of pain and suffering.

The only way to know what the third example above should be, if the word itself isn’t clear on the tape after a few listens, is to look at the context. If the speaker goes on to say, ‘I thought if the bends got any tighter it would be quite dangerous’ then suggestion one is a winner, but she says, ‘It was a journey I really didn’t want to make. I knew it was going to be painful before I started,’ then we’re looking at option two.

Another essential part of proofreading is research, generally internet-based, to check on people’s names, or locations mentioned in a transcript. Searching out an obscure village in Thailand, for instance, listening again and again to check, ‘Is that really what he said, or is it wishful thinking on my part, because it’s a name I’ve found?’ And then going back and seeing if he says anything else about the village to give me a clue… context again. Perhaps ‘It was near Chiang Mai’. Heck, the one I found is down in the south and Chiang Mai is up north – start again; but what a sense of achievement when you do track them down!

One has to be a little careful not to waste time though. Perhaps in the case above the interviewer knew exactly where the interviewee was talking about and could have filled in the blank in a second or two! So we always try to fill in the blanks, but if something uncertain then we’ll always flag it up for the interviewer to double-check.

Then there’s bits you can’t quite hear – either the person’s mumbling or the recording isn’t great, or the interview is recorded somewhere noisy and a train went past blowing its’ whistle.  I always like to make a stab at those, although I’ll always highlight them as only possibilities, rather than definite. An example cropped up today. Someone was talking about making a contribution to something, ‘but not very much and very tan-xxx-ly.’ I could hear the ‘tan’ and the ‘ly’ quite clearly but the whole word wasn’t quite clear. Context was key again – she’d only played a roll from the side-lines so the missing word was ‘tangentially’.

So if you’re a novice transcriber reading this, do take on board that context is absolutely vital in this kind of work – and if you’re a potential client, please be assured that all work from Penguin Transcription is transcribed by a small team of experienced and knowledgeable transcribers, and then carefully proofread – taking context into account!

* I can’t use real examples as all our work is treated as strictly confidential.



Security risks for transcription services

An American company providing transcription services has been charged by the Federal Trade Commission with having inadequate data security measures. This is worrying stuff for anyone providing such services – and for their clients! In this case the company, GMR, hired contractors to transcribe audio files for their clients. So do we, at Penguin Transcription.

 Their contractors then downloaded the audio files, transcribed them and uploaded them again. So do ours.

 They work with highly sensitive material, including medical reports, information about children etc. So do we.

 Somehow, a major search engine apparently picked up some of these transcripts off their network and indexed them so that anyone could read them on the internet.

 Thankfully here at Penguin Transcription we have a secure network and we use a secure, encrypted file-sending service to send the audio files, so that they cannot be downloaded by just anyone. Contractors send files back the same way.

 We do use email, as a rule, to send back work to clients, but if the client wishes we are very happy to send their work back using our file-sending system instead. All th work is checked in house. Also, if requested by the client, we can do all their work in-house – if they have booked in good time and won’t want too large a volume completed in too short a time! We can also add extra security measures such as pass word protecting documents, as required. At Penguin Transcription we take your file security seriously. 


‘More mist and fox patches’ – subtitling gone wild?

An article in the Radio Times by David Blunkett, MP, discussing the poor quality of both subtitling and, more relevant to him personally, dubbing, started me thinking; it’s an interesting piece but he doesn’t actually tackle the reasons behind the problems, so I thought I would have a go at tackling them here.

A recent report by Ofcom has highlighted the continuing poor quality of live subtitling on many UK TV sites, including a weather forecast stating ‘They would be a few more mist and fox patches’ and ‘see engle Bert humper distinct’. However, they also don’t tackle in their consultation notice is why these problems occur.

The notice suggests broadcasters should report on the quality of their subtitling, rather than just the quantity as they do now, which they hope will incentivise them to improve. However, like everybody else in this current economic climate, broadcasters are making cuts, and one of the cuts they’ve made is to rid themselves of real people (stenographers) doing subtitling and outsource to companies who are using speech recognition programmes. The problem? These programmes are just not able to work to this level.

Such software can only be trained to, and recognize, one voice. Consequently people are employed (on low wages as a rule) to listen to live broadcasts and ‘respeak’ into a microphone. Even if they respeak with perfect accuracy, the software still won’t always pick things up correctly. This is partly simply because it’s not perfect and partly because colloquial English frequently doesn’t fit into the grammar rules that it’s been ‘taught’. There is an interesting article by Deaf Journalist Charlie Swinbourne.

I suppose if the outsourcing companies are paid per programme or minute or whatever, and the broadcasters are happy they’ve met their Ofcom obligations on quantity of subtitling, regardless of quality, things aren’t going to improve. So let’s hope the Ofcom initiative comes off and stenographers get their jobs back. (I’m well aware of how many people have been made redundant from subtitling jobs because over the last few years I’ve had very frequent requests for work from stenographers looking to move into standard transcription! (But please don’t apply at the moment – we’re fully staffed!)

To VAT or not to VAT – that was the question.

It wasn’t tough to make the decision to register for VAT in 2012 because we had no choice! It’s quite hard to try to skirt under the limit, as it’s a rolling 12-month total and the moment you go over it, you need to register. We knew we were coming close but it hit us sooner than anticipated and we had to register whether we wanted to or not. The decision to deregister was a little bit harder. We have, however, very recently deregistered from VAT.

We eventually came down on the side of deregistering for a number of reasons. First and foremost was that a large number of our clients requiring transcription services were either not VAT registered or worked for universities/institutions who could claim back VAT and did claim back VAT, but the VAT was claimed back at the end of the year and disappeared into university coffers, never to be seen again by the department whose budget we had been paid out of! (‘Ah’ said a friend of mine at a certain southern university that shall be nameless, ‘That would explain why my department is suffering redundancies while the finance department is getting plush new carpets.’  Well I don’t know about that, but something doesn’t seem right!) Don’t get me wrong – not all universities do this – but a very large number, it appears, do. For those people, when we had to register in 2012 our prices suddenly went up by 20%. Of course they didn’t really, in that we weren’t making a penny more in the way of profit, but the effect on those clients was nevertheless a 20% increase in our transcription prices. In times of recession this clearly isn’t acceptable and it’s not something we like to do to our clients either!

Another important point is that most transcription companies never face this barrier because they are one-woman bands and are unlikely to have a turnover requiring VAT registration. We are an office of three people with others who sometimes subcontract for us in busy periods. This allows us to provide a very flexible, speedy and expert transcription service, as we have around 50 years transcription experience between us in the office, but it also means we can work for more people at the same time so our turnover increases compared to those one-person-in-a-home-office businesses.

Because of that our ‘competition’ are largely not charging VAT. Those that are perhaps work mostly for organisations that can claim VAT back, and for those there is no issue. If we don’t charge VAT, fine; if we do charge VAT they simply claim it back at the end of the year. As explained above, this has not been the case for our university, charity or individual clients. Consequently our competition suddenly appeared significantly cheaper than us.

On top of this, in April the limit in the amount you can earn before VAT needing to be paid went up substantially and we were able to come under that limit again. We have therefore deregistered and, for those clients who were affected, our prices have come down again by 20%.

To those of you who were able to stick with us through this period, thank you very much! For anyone who wasn’t able to, we completely understand – and we hope to see you back soon!


Latest winner of our customre satisfaction survey draw – and sound-file sending issues

Our customer satisfaction survey continues to provide us with satisfaction, because we can see that we are still satisfying our customers. All customers last quarter were satisfied, the majority very satisfied, with the quality of our transcription and our customer service, as well as the accuracy of our quotes and invoices.

There is one area in which our customers are now 100% happy though. The majority of people are only ‘satisfied’ rather than ‘very satisfied’ with our file-sending service. We take this feedback seriously and we want people to be thrilled and delighted with the file-sending service too, but there are issues beyond our control.

Sound files are BIG and if your internet is slow then no matter what method of file sending we use, it’s going to take a while. Also, some institutions and large organisations have very strong firewalls (necessary for their security of course) and these can occasionally stop users accessing sites where files can be sent. This is really out of our control but usually a word with the IT department sorts it out! If not, then files can always be sent by snail-mail on a DVD or CD.

Having said that, some systems are certainly better than others and we are looking into alternatives at the moment. The one we have is fairly reliable, and fairly fast, but there may be better options out there and we want the best for our clients!

And now … the winner is … Geraldine Byrne of Breast Cancer Campaign. Congratulations Geraldine – a £20 Amazon voucher is on its way to you.

Hackers, spoofers and spammers!

Well it’s been an ‘interesting’ week, in the apocryphal old Chinese curse sense of interesting, ‘may you live in in interesting times’! We have had a week beset by IT issues. Firstly our antivirus ran out and I decided that as I hadn’t been too happy with it I’d replace it with something else. I looked at the reviews and Bitdefender seemed to be coming out top, so I bought that for all three PCs. Lesson learnt: always try out these things on the free trial first! Now I’m not saying Bitdefender is bad – I’m sure it’s excellent – but I know very little about things like setting up a firewall and so on, and as we are an office of networked PCs it’s not as straightforward as just doing it on the one PC at home.  We were getting unexplained crashes, updates failing to update, even an infamous ‘blue screen of death’! Eventually I managed, with the help of their support department, to iron out these niggles, only to find that some charmer had hacked our website and was sending out vast quantities of spam through our ‘online quote request form‘.

At least I think that’s what was happening. It’s not the first time I’ve been hacked through a ‘back door’ like that, and of course the website was a few years old and the form didn’t have one of those deeply frustrating reCaptcha things on it – you know the ones, where it says ‘write these two words in the boxes below’ and shows you a series of unreadable squiggles that you’re supposed to interpret. I hate those things. I expect you hate those things too! Well I’m sorry to have to tell you that the online quote request form does now have one on, because it’s those foul and horrible things that prevent the even more foul and horrible thing of being hacked!

So if in the last few weeks you have had an email from my purporting to be the biggest fan of some electronics store or telling you how to find an exciting new job,  that would be why. Fortunately it did not hack into my address list and it was not a virus, so none of my friends, clients etc.  should have been affected and it’s quite unlikely that you received an email. They were sent randomly to hundreds of people, but not specifically to my clients. That’s one blessing anyway!  Sadly that can’t be stopped altogether because if one’s email address is ‘out there’ on the net it can be picked up by spammers and ‘spoofed’. Spoofing is where an email says it’s coming from say me, for instance, but in reality, if you dig down into the email header, the part that’s not normally visible, you will find that it’s actually being sent from somewhere entirely different. Fortunately spoofing is usually in relatively small numbers, unlike the hacking where I was getting a couple of hundred a day!

The Penguin Transcription website is now completely revamped again and is running on WordPress. Hopefully it will now be relatively secure, at least for a while, and I can get back to business.

Lovely new testimonials for Penguin Transcription

Lovely new testimonials for Penguin Transcription! Thanks to Andrew, Sue and Greg.

Further points from our customer satisfaction survey

This is really good news for us: 100% of respondents who had used other transcription companies said that Penguin Transcription was better than other transcription companies – which is encouraging to say the least!

Respondents were asked to rank the following in order of importance to them:

Turnaround time
Advice & guidance
User-friendly systems and service
Introductory offer
Charity/academic discount rate
Free short sample

And this is how the rankings come out so far:





Advice & Guidance


User-friendly systems and service










It’s good to see that the things that we pride ourselves on are the things that matter most to our clients!

And finally, here are some comments from our clients:

Anne and her staff are really supportive is arranging details of transcription process, deadlines, costs etc. They are also very responsive to queries and often identify issues within audio that they resolve promptly.

Luke Dickens, Goldsmiths College, University of London

And regarding the quality of our transcription services, a short and sweet comment from Rick Young Limited:

Very happy, which is why I use you.


Chaffinch in frosted rose

The robin wouldn’t sit till long enough, so here’s a seasonal picture of a more obliging chaffinch, taken just before starting work this morning.

Seasons Greetings and best wishes for a Happy New Year to all our readers!

Scientific transcription

I went to another fascinating series of talks at the John Innes Centre last night: ‘nature’s chemical tool kit’. I’ve been a ‘Friend of the John Innes Centre’ ever since I found out such a thing existed, and they always provide excellent, entertaining and ‘accessible’ science. They also very kindly provide a light supper afterwards and a chance to chat.

I was chatting to one of the ladies that worked there and we got talking about transcription… as you do. She commented that as a non-scientist herself she had had a scientific meeting transcribed a year or so ago and had thought it would be wonderful to have all the complex scientific words put in by someone so she didn’t have to worry about it. Unfortunately of course, when the transcript came back all the names of chemical compounds, genes, plants etc. were just left blank or marked as [unknown word]!

This is not all that surprising given that most transcriptionists (though by no means all) come from a secretarial background and won’t necessarily be familiar with scientific terms, and this is an area where we can help! As I have a PhD in biology, I’m already familiar with the basic scientific terms, and even if I’m not familiar with the precise scientific term someone uses, I have enough of a scientific background to know where and how to start looking it up, which is actually one of the most important skills in transcription, to my mind.

Of course, there are things the client can do to ensure a better result from the start.  It’s always helpful to send any slides, PowerPoint presentations, abstracts and publicity material along with the audio, which will provide further clues as to what’s being spoken about.

If you have audience asking questions, as they did last night, then do make sure you have roving microphones. John Innes were very organised about this last night; they had two people with roving mikes in a fairly small auditorium so it was quick and easy to get the microphone over to whoever wanted to ask a question.

Also, if you want the audience members identified (not necessary last night, but it often is in a more formal environment) do make sure you ask them before the questions start, to identify themselves before they ask their question, and then send the delegate list to your transcriptionist so that s/he has the spellings. And remind the chairman that just because he knows it’s ‘Old Corky’ sitting at the back, saying ‘Hello Corky – let’s have your question then’ will not allow the transcriptionist to recognise ‘George Wellington Wells’ on the delegate list! (I’ve had this happen on many any occasion!)