A history of transcription

When I first began working, I was employed as an audio typist in surveyors offices.  My working days were spent listening to audio recordings the surveyors made about the properties they visited and typing up their reports. Alongside my typewriter was a cassette machine, which played mini cassettes, headphones and underneath my desk was a foot pedal that enabled me to play tapes, rewind and fast forward these. Recently I have been reminded of this time as I have been listening to audio recordings and correcting the digital transcripts for a client and it got me thinking about the history of transcription.

Hieroglyphs on stela in Louvre, circa 1321 BC.
Hieroglyphs on stela in Louvre, circa 1321 BC.

The Oxford English dictionary defines transcription as ‘a written or printed version of something’, the word transcribe as ‘putting thoughts, speech or data into written or printed form’ and the word  transcript as ‘a written or printed version of material originally presented in another medium.’ The history of transcription as documentation is believed to have begun in ancient Egypt where scribes were taught how to read and write hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts. There were many signs to learn and students would practice writing these by copying them onto sheets of papyrus, old pieces of pottery or flakes of limestone. The word ‘transcribe’ dates back to the 1550s and comes from the Latin word ‘transcribere’ meaning ‘to copy, write again in another place, write over, transfer’ and much to my delight, while researching this post, I have discovered that to transcribe poorly is to ‘transcribble.’

Jean Miélot, a European author and scribe at work.
Jean Miélot, a European author and scribe at work.

As religions developed around the world, scribes were in high demand. Medieval scribes were often monks who wrote the text, while an illuminator, painted the pictures and in the late 12th century the word scribe meant ‘professional interpreter of the Jewish Law’ with Jewish scribes being known as Sofers. The Bible Odyssey explains ‘as the Israelites identity and beliefs started to come into sharper relief in the centuries leading up to the Babylonian Exile, Jewish scribes began to invest more and more time in defining themselves and their religious tradition over and against neighboring cultures.’

Jewish scribes at the Tomb of Ezekiel in Iraq circa 1914.
Jewish scribes at the Tomb of Ezekiel in Iraq circa 1914.

In late 14th century English the word came to mean ‘one who writes, official or public writer’ and in the 1530s meant ‘copyist, transcriber of manuscripts.’  From the 1530s onwards the word was also used to mean ‘an author, one fond of writing.’ Scribes were also known as scriveners. From the fourteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, scriveners, were confidential writers of legal documents. The Worshipful Company Of Scriveners was founded in London in 1373 to establish control over the practice of all those writing legal documents in the city and from 12 January 1498 every apprentice was tested to ensure satisfactory knowledge of grammar. Scriveners were also called on to write documents for those who were unable to write themselves, as shown in the painting below titled ‘The Public Letter Writer.

The Public Letter Writer.
The Public Letter Writer by Z. Carabin – York Museums Trust.

Types of transcription

There are a number of different types of transcription. 

Verbatim transcription

When audio needs to be transcribed verbatim, this means that both verbal and nonverbal elements are recorded. This could be changes in breathing, emotion or tone, when someone coughs, sneezes, speaks loudly or softly, interruptions in speech and background noise, such as a phone ringing or a knock on the door. Punctuation is also used, inserting ellipses in the transcription for example to represent pauses or hesitations or inserting two short dashes for interruptions.

Intelligent transcription

This type of transcription is similar to verbatim transcription but is likely to have tags and markers such as [cough] or [sneeze] removed making it easier to read.

Edited transcription

This type of transcription is more streamlined again. Hesitations, stuttering and filler words such as ‘um’, ‘ah’ and ‘yeah’ are removed and spelling and grammar errors are corrected. This type of transcription is intended to be read widely say as an article or website post.

Summarised transcription

Summarised transcriptions provide the gist of a recording, they are not word for word.

Paraphrased transcription

Paraphrased transcriptions are similar to summarised transcription but written in the third person.

Monastic scribes copying manuscripts.
Monastic scribes copying manuscripts.

What transcription is not

What do you think of when you think of transcription? Here are some things transcription is not.

Court reporting

Court reporting is undertaken by a court reporter (often referred to as a stenographer.) Court reporters are trained to create written verbatim records of proceedings, using a type of shorthand called ‘stenography’. Using a stenotype machine stenographers type out syllables rather than each letter of a word, which cuts down the time required to type and enables them to record what is  being said in real time. 

Live captioning

Live captioning is used at remote conferences and online events to transcribe audio in real time, or at events with live interviews and discussions, where the transcription is projected onto a large screen. Live captioning that is shown in a language other than the one being spoken live is known as Communication Access Real-Time Translation’ (CART.)


Subtitling is text added to a recorded video file – it requires special file formatting and there are technical aspects involved relating to character limitations, to ensure subtitles fit on  a screen. An audience’s reading speed must also be considered so they can have an enjoyable reading experience.

Audio to text translation

Audio to text translation requires material in one language to be translated into a different language. Rather than providing a written record of exactly what has been said, it requires fluency in both languages in order to translate one language to the other  accurately, so is something very different to transcription.

Modern scribes with typewriters outside post office, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, India, 2010.
Modern scribes with typewriters outside post office, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, India, 2010

Transcription today

As recently as the 1980s, a transcriptionist had to be in the same room as the dictator with many dictators having a secretary situated close by to ‘take a note’ for them. Alternatively they would record on to tape or hand write letters, memos and reports for their secretaries to transcribe. Word processors and computers made it easier to correct mistakes, print multiple copies of documents and store documents for later use. Then technology changed everything again.  

There are many examples of the usefulness of transcription today.  

  • Audio transcription can be used for recordings and podcasts that may need to be transcribed into readable, written text. Legal proceedings may need transcribing for reading by lawyers, juries, and judges. Medical and healthcare workers may need their notes transcribing for medical records. Researchers may need to transcribe interviews. Audio files can be uploaded online, downloaded anywhere and transferred back online or through email. Smartphones also support recording.
  • Video or film audio may need converting into text say for blogs, news articles and ebooks.
  • Written PDFs and handwritten materials such as notes and letters may need transcribing for example historians and archivists working to preserve history and written content that appears in brochures or flyers may need to be re-created in a text only format. The blind or visually impaired also rely on transcription to be able to read.  
  • Visual scribing where artists attend events and transcribe what has been said with illustrations that capture ideas and key messages.
Visual scribe at Wikimania Stockholm 2019.
Visual scribe at Wikimania Stockholm 2019 by Simply Draw It Big Visuals.

A report by Future Market Insights (FMI) states the global marketing transcription market is projected to witness a growth in revenue from US$ 1.68 Bn in 2021 to US$ 3.71 Bn by 2031. The report cites modern artificial intelligence (AI) which provides a huge opportunity to quickly transcribe high quality audio and video recordings and speech recognition software which enables the conversion of speech into text by recognising spoken words for this boom. So while technology will never replace transcribers who will always have to oversee and edit transcriptions for errors, it can do much of the work, meaning transcription is very much here to stay. 

Hate typing? Record your letters, reports, emails, minutes, agendas, contracts, interviews, send the recordings to me and I will type these for you.


Further information

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