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What is transcription and how is it done?

In this article we will explore a rather fascinating discipline: transcription. But what exactly does it mean to transcribe? It is a word that can be used in several contexts. Let’s consult the Royal Academy dictionary. The definitions for the verb “transcribe” are the following:


  1. tr. copy(‖ write in one place what is written in another).
  2. tr. transliterate.
  3. tr. To represent phonetic, phonological, lexical or morphological elements of a language or dialect by means of a writing system.
  4. tr.Mus. To arrange for one instrument music written for another or others.

Since we operate in the field of applied linguistics – the branch of linguistics concerned with communication and translation – we will focus on the third definition.


Put more simply, transcription consists of writing down a spoken message. This is done for various purposes and offers a wide array of possibilities: you can produce a written record of an event, create subtitles for videos, document a speech…


Given the many applications of this discipline, let’s take a look at the different types of transcription that exist in order to choose the one that best suits your needs. Transcription has been around for centuries, but is more prominent than ever in the current digital context. You never know when you might need it.


Transcription types


There are many types of messages and all sorts of uses for transcription. Considering the purpose of your project and understanding the different types of transcription will help you choose the most suitable one. In addition, the type will also determine the method. Keep reading to get a clearer idea.


  1. Verbatim transcription: one of the most common types. Verbatim means that the transcriptionist will type out each and every single sound heard in the audio. The sounds include both the words and any mumbles, mispronunciations and repetitions. This method produces the most accurate result. The problem? Spoken language is very different from written language, so a verbatim transcription will not work if you seek a text to be enjoyed. It is impractical in education, entertainment and the like, and is mainly used in trials, reports and forensic evidence.
  2. Natural transcription: also very common, but unlike the previous one, this one allows us to enjoy the text per se. It usually omits irrelevant information, but sometimes includes words that are not in the audio file. Of course, those words should not alter the meaning, but only serve as support. This practice is common when a seminar is transcribed for inclusion in a book, for example. Other common uses? Subtitles, presentations, interviews––you name it.
  3. Phonetic transcription: this type is less common as it consists of transcribing sounds into the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols. This phonetic alphabet allows us to know the exact pronunciation of words. It is usually reserved for linguistic studies, but it can also be very valuable in the field of language learning.
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Steps to follow in a transcription

There are a number of very simple steps to follow when transcribing that will help you achieve optimal results. Let’s look at them one by one:

  1. Listen to the audio before starting to transcribe: Hearing the audio or watching the video you are going to work with will allow you to get an initial idea. This is important because you will be able to identify interlocutors, take notes of terms and do research. It will also allow you to know the quality of the audio in order to prepare the appropriate tools.
  2. Transcribe a first draft: We always recommend making a first draft to have some text to work on. You don’t have to try to capture in detail everything you hear; use abbreviations to lighten the load, so you can focus a bit more on capturing what is most important. It will also allow you to make some technical and stylistic decisions: do I need time stamps? How do I mark repetitions or omissions?
  3. Editing the draft: With the first draft ready, listen to the audio or watch the video again and add anything that’s missing. Focus on clarity and, in the case of a natural transcription, fluency as well. Make sure to attribute the dialogue to the correct interlocutors. If you’re preparing a verbatim transcription, you need to check punctuation, but not grammar; if the transcription is natural, you must check both.
  4. Final touches and completion: In this last step, polish up any formatting issues and add relevant prompts. You may want to edit paragraphs and add page numbers, headings and subheadings. In the case of a verbatim transcription, it may be necessary to add the word “sic” in parentheses or brackets to mark textual grammatical errors. In any case, the resulting document should meet the client’s expectations and requests.

Further steps after transcription

We have already mentioned several times that there are many cases and applications for transcription. Some additional steps may need to be taken before concluding the project, such as:

  1. Subtitles: If the transcript is going to be used to make subtitles, you must create those subtitles. With the transcript and the video in hand, you need to split the text into lines so as not to exceed a limit of characters per second to facilitate reading. You also have to adjust the timing so that the subtitles appear and disappear when they should, always ensuring clarity. Subtitles for the deaf also contain additional descriptions for other sounds that appear in the video.
  2. Translation: Many transcripts are used to translate spoken speech into other languages. In this case, the transcript will be sent to a translator specialised in the subject matter. This practice is also common in the translation of subtitles, in which case the finished subtitles are usually sent to an audiovisual translator.
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Transcription tools

You might not be aware of the specific tools that can make your work easier. Transcription can be a very long and tedious job, so going beyond the usual word processor can be a lifesaver. There are specialised tools with which you can view the video and text on a single screen, adjusting the playback speed as needed. To control the playback speed, you can also use foot pedals that connect to the computer and allow you to move through the video with precision. Every little helps to transcribe quickly and efficiently.

When it comes to sound quality, good headphones can make all the difference. If there is a lot of background noise, high-quality headphones will better separate the main speech. If the recording to be transcribed has not yet been produced, we also recommend using microphones suitable for the job. The better the quality of the audio files, the better the transcript.

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Common uses of transcription

We have explained some applications of transcription. With so many contexts and situations, it is difficult to say which are the most common. Nevertheless, we will try to outline the most frequent ones.

Transcription for the hearing impaired

Without transcription, many people with hearing difficulties would not be able to understand films, TV series and programmes or even videos on social media. In the Information Age, most information is transmitted through audiovisual means. Transcription makes it possible for everyone to access them.

Transcription in scientific and academic fields

A transcript of a lecture, class or seminar often becomes the only way to keep a copy. Other scholars use transcripts in their own research. This facilitates the study and analysis of knowledge that exists only in spoken form.

Transcription for documentation

Transcription has several uses in documentation. Many trials are transcribed to provide a written record of what happened in the courtroom, as are other official proceedings. During police inspections or investigations, some incidents will also require a written report. Accurate transcription by a specialist will be essential in such situations.

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I need transcription services!

If you’re looking for a transcription service, look no further. At Overseas Translations we offer custom transcription services always carried out by professionals. With high-quality transcription, the spoken message will go much further and its content will be preserved for longer.

Verbatim transcription? Natural? Phonetic? We adapt to our clients’ needs. And for those who need even more, we also specialise in audiovisual translation. Trust us and our professional network!

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