Transcription is a strange education in listening because what you hear nobody hears. And what you hear was, in a sense, never meant to be heard either.
I’ve been earning a living from transcribing for many years. Did I mention my glue ear? For a long time my ears were nobody’s concern. But when my hearing was corrected, at the age of seven, in flooded a surplus of clarity. This is how I discovered there is more. And this more is something I notice when transcribing, because transcription is a revealing of more. That which is not taken up by the speaker or the listener, the debris of conversation, is suddenly met, transcribed on the page. Is this making any sense? Hesitates.
So transcription is a form of listening, to what? At first to nothing. Nothing more than what is said. So there is not much to it, just follow the words, listen for the next word, and transcribe it onto a page. And what if a word does not come? Wait. Just like the speaker waits for a word to enter their thoughts, I wait for their word to enter my ears. A hesitation becomes hesitates. A sigh becomes sighs. Everything goes down to my fingers because I touch type when I transcribe from a recording. I touch the type and the word goes down. It touches down. No sooner has one word landed than the next is on its way. If the voice is fast, I race until I am outrun and then press pause. Pause my listening and go back. I listen again because I, because I, because one of two things has happened. I was either left behind, the sentence speeding on ahead, the transcriber out of puff. Or I sense something is wrong. Hesitates. Something is at odds, some dissonance, something put down badly. So I need to go back and listen again. Something has landed incorrectly. Some phrase more mine than theirs. Some confidence of mine not theirs. A struggle commences. For comprehension? Theirs and mine. D’you know what I mean?
I go back and listen again. Their sentence disintegrates as—Their sentence creeks and—Bends under the weight of an incipient thought. Their words fall out of predictable rhythms, settling at angles with my expectations, bits clatter. Sighs. I have to go back. And when the voice I am transcribing falters in this way, excited by unruly forces, the utterance will not wait in an orderly manner in my memory for the moment it takes to put it down. Because the unruly utterance is hard to hear. I can listen, but I am so trained by being human, to hear sense, that transcribing non-sense, or the sense which is imminent, takes—I go back and listen more.
And here is something transcription teaches me: to listen more. Because in the interests of getting it right, capturing the words accurately, I have unlearned listening. Learned to hear the outpouring that only means, I am here! To listen more intently when words fail and flare. When a repetition urges forward some distant concern. Is this making any sense?
So, there is the discipline of knowing when enough is enough, when language finds its limit, when something cannot be transcribed. Hesitates. And there is knowing how transcription depends on what you are listening for, and what you are listening for changes as you do more listening. I imagine this happens across all forms of transcriptions, as you listen to a recording again and again, and as you rush to the summit of the fridge for the pen and scrap paper to note what was just said.
I think the listening the transcriber does is threefold: listening for her own impatience with the detail, listening for her own errors and listening for fallen words. And it takes time, two or three times longer than the length of a recording. So, if I type at the same speed most people speak, it’s the listening that takes time. Stop me if anything seems unclear.
This unearthly listening, all by yourself, is perhaps akin to reading people. Transcription brings me closer to the thoughtfulness of a narrator who stays close to their characters, listening intently for what is not said, and occasionally reporting on what is. I mean, so much apprehension of each other happens without speech, it is a wonder we bother speaking at all, or why speech is so deigned. This is one reason why dialogue can be so true when it is at odds with events. Why reported speech can be a bit like the outside of a problem, the wreck rather than the collision. So maybe I want to argue that the person involved in transcribing might develop a narrator’s ear. Might be able to listen out for the narrative of collisions between people, between a person and the world, between a person and their own vocalising.
The Self-Illuminating Pen was also published as a limited edition notebook by MAP Editions in November 2020 and made available free. Designed by the artist and with cover artwork by Ciara Phillips, it includes the 5 letters, 5 special writing exercises devised by Sarah Tripp and over 100 blank pages.
Sarah Tripp is an artist, writer and lecturer based in Glasgow. She lectures in Scotland and the United Kingdom and guest lectures at international universities. Her work has been published by Book Works (London), F.R. DAVID (Berlin), 2HB (Glasgow), Space Poetry (Denmark) and The Happy Hypocrite.
Isobel Lutz-Smith is a Scottish moving image artist based in Glasgow. In 2016 she graduated from the Master of Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art, as part of this programme she spent an exchange semester in Tokyo. Her work will feature in an upcoming issue of The Drouth.