Adventures in Transcription

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Transcription is the bane of my existence. Yes, it is fun to be a journalist, yes it is fun to travel around the country talking to diverse and interesting people, yes it is fun to weave those people into broader stories about the world at large. But there’s a middle step in there in which I come home with reams of audio interviews that I’ve recorded that I have to type up. And that part is not fun.

For my job, I travel somewhere every month and write a handful of stories from that place, which means dozens of dozens of interviews of people who go into my stories. For my last visit, to Oregon, for example, I returned home with some 32 different audio interviews for six different stories, and the sinking feeling that it was going to take a loooong time to type them all up.

On occasion, I send a few transcriptions off to services, but they charge $1 a minute, and with dozens of hours of interviews, that cost was going to add up. But this time around, our intrepid deputy editor Matt Thompson, who seems to know first about all things tech, had a suggestion. He’d heard of a new service called Trint that charged just 25 cents a minute for transcription. Rather than using real humans to type up my interviews, Trint uses some sort of combination of artificial intelligence/computer/magic (it must be magic; there is no explanation on the company’s website).

I sent Trint my interview with Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, that eventually ended up being used in my Welfare Utopia story about that state’s social safety net. I  figured that since Kotek speaks crisply and since the audio recording of the interview was decent, Trint would be able to get me a clear transcript. Then I waited.

Shortly after I submitted the interview, I got an email. My transcription was ready. Already! Most services take 24 hours, not just a few minutes. I was ebullient. Fast transcriptions! Cheap costs! I’d never had to transcribe anything myself again! And then I opened the transcript.

It was, for the most part, nonsense. I’ve included a few choice examples below. Computers, it seems, are not very good at transcription (nor are they good at doing journalism, as my colleague Adrienne found out in a recent endeavor). I’ve reverted, for the time, back to transcribing my own interviews and sending a few off to services, and wait, for now, for those dumb computers to learn English, for crying out loud!

Here’s Kotek according to Trint (with the actual words in italics):

He said you know let's give people more motivational education. Let’s give people a war. Song. You know. Let’s. List is evil statement. Once they got off the channel.

We said, you know, let’s get people more vocational education. Let’s get people more soft skills, Let’s give people a payment once they get off TANF so they have a little income, some transition money.

Kotek about working with a colleague in the legislature (actual words in italics):

Any gay. And my colleague at the time was. Jim Freeman. Who’s also a novelist security which Imprimis. County. 

And again. My colleague at the time was Tim Freeman, who is also not on the legislature anymore. Tim Freeman is now a county commissioner in Douglas County.

Kotek about helping people who needed welfare during the recession:

So we had of the love. We had all the good ones here because they had nobody. Really. It was recession really. Richard Roth. What the goal the players Aisha was the people. On campus. Kimberly.

So we had a dilemma. We had all these people on TANF because they had no income, it was the recession, right, people were on TANF. What the goal – the prioritization – was to keep people on TANF.

Kotek on sustaining food stamps for adults without children:

But the reality is again that this is a world which will be discovered in a fog. How do you tell us as an able bodied adult about the planet will find a job.

But the reality is again this is a rural issue. What we discovered in the ABAWD discussion was, how do you tell someone who is able-bodied adult to go find a job in a community that has 50% unemployment? You can’t do that.

And my personal favorite: Kotek and I were sitting in a coffee shop, and we were interrupted a few times by constituents, including a man wearing lederhosen who said he represented the Pacific Green Party (we were in Portland, after all). The words the man said were muffled and hard to hear on the transcription. But Trint had some ideas:

Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. This year. We. Were. Done to secure the strap. On. My. Right. It was. Written. Down so. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. The story. Will. Go away. Oh oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh oh oh. Oh we're. Having. A. Boy like me.