Should you transcribe a mistake? One of the hardest judgements that transcribers often have to make is whether or not to directly transcribe a mistake. After all, humans are humans, and humans make mistakes, ranging from factual to grammatical errors. But as we’ve said before on countless occasions, transcription is about balancing accuracy with ease of reading. But where do you draw the line?
Well as is so often the case, these things have to be decided on a case by case basis. Whether to correct a mistake depends on what sort of mistake it is and the purpose of the transcript.
Let’s consider some examples of “mistakes”.
Let’s face it, we all make the odd factual error every now and then, and we normally know we have the moment we do it. Factual errors, fair obviously, are any false statements of fact, whether basic or more complicated. An example would be “Morocco is in Asia” or “snakes are mammals”. The rule on factual errors in transcription is rather simple: transcribe what is said, whether correct or not. If, as is often the case, the speaker corrects themselves or is corrected by someone else, then this is also included in the transcription.
The reason for this is that transcripts first and foremost are a record of what is said, even if it is factually erroneous. In fact, there are some cases where such errors could be used as evidence towards a decision, for example a job interview in which the interviewee makes a mistake about the company he is applying to join.
Things however get more complicated with grammatical errors. Firstly, grammatical errors are wide and varied. Some relate to pronunciation, others to personal speaking style, and some are just plain mistakes that we all make on a daily basis. Spoken grammatical errors tend to differ from those you see on paper – in fact some written mistakes can’t be made in speech, such as “its” and “it’s” which are pronounced the same.
Dealing with varying pronunciation is one of the greatest challenges for any transcriber. Many are small differences and have no effect on spelling. Sometimes however words might be pronounced as if they are spelt differently to how they normally would be. For example, when now prime minister Liz Truss referred to Russian billionaires as “olly-garchs” rather than oligarchs. Should these differences be communicated on the transcript?
It depends what purpose the transcript is serving. If these details are particularly relevant to the purpose of your research or project, then you might want to leave them in unaltered. However, for the most part, at JUST, we would correct words to their common spelling unless otherwise specified by the client.
Other grammatical variations
Everyone has their particular way of speaking, called idiolect. When transcribing, our task is to balance preserving idiolect with ease of reading. A lot of these habits are culturally and geographically identifiable. For example, rather than saying “those people”, some people may say “them people”. Where possible it’s favourable to preserve idiolect – to not do so would render all transcripts insipid and remove the person behind the words.
What might tilt the decision the other way are factors such as readability. Some things that make perfect sense spoken may not translate well in a written format. You may want to correct a grammatical mistake if it makes reading the text more difficult, and doing so does not substantially alter the meaning of what is being said.
One final word
Handling everyday mistakes in speech in transcription is a matter of judgement. While transcripts should be easily understandable, but still distinguishable from a readout in that they preserve the personality behind language.