One of the stimulating challenges for theatre and television directors is working with a script. A script is a starting-point; an actor can give to his or her lines a distinctive intonation, cadence, volume and register. From one script, an endless variety of performances can be developed.

Transcripts move in the opposite direction, attempting to capture distinctive speech in writing. This project, too, constitutes a stimulating challenge. Global Lingo has established a clear and comprehensive writing guide, but its writers are nonetheless required to show great flexibility when producing a transcript, for in some cases there is no definitive solution.

We all, for instance, use contractions in our speech, and they often occur in our most idiomatic and forceful expressions. Writing these kinds of contractions in a transcript can give an informal and unprofessional feel to the document; sometimes, though, removing the contractions can be misleading. ‘Don’t think I wouldn’t do it’ can be written out, more formally, as ‘Do not think that I would not do it’, but the formal transcription captures little of the original spoken phrase. Speaking in an interview, one executive described how, ‘if you are an operator, you may not be able to do something that has huge meaning and scale.’ He then added, in a concise American idiom: ‘Du’n’t mean ya can’t do something.’ Again, such a comment can be rendered as ‘That does not mean that you cannot do something’. In this instance, the formal transcription preserves the sense, but it misses the insistent and cajoling nature of the spoken phrase. Global Lingo’s transcripts tend to omit contractions, ensuring that the documents read well. However, ‘it’s’ or ‘we’ve’ may be retained when such a method seems appropriate.

Emphasis presents a similar problem. While individual words can be italicised, it can be more difficult to convey the specific intention of a remark. Responding to a detailed summary of his interviewee’s responsibilities, for example, one interview remarked, ‘So, not much then!’ Without the exclamation mark, the response could be ambiguous or insulting. Further, emphasis can reside in the kind of characteristic verbal phrasing that may or may not be redundant. One speaker remarked how something applied ‘across – I was going to say virtually every aspect, but I think across every aspect’. This could be cut to ‘across every aspect’, retaining the sense while shortening the transcript. Yet the hesitation and retake creates an emphasis that could be important. Similarly, the verbal tic of ‘What we have to do right now is’ occurs frequently. ‘What we have to do right now is make our business competitive’ could be cut to, ‘Right now, we have to make our business competitive’, but such a modification may shift the emphasis.

A third question arises when transcribing the beginning of sentences. Non-native speakers of English often begin sentences with an adverb: one Danish speaker used ‘Actually’ on many occasions, while a French speaker used ‘Basically’ on a regular basis. Native English speakers are more likely to begin a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’. Removing these words gives the transcript a more professional feel and ensures that it reads fluently; however, the ‘And’ at the start of a sentence might imply impulsive addition, a fact that may be relevant to the transcript.

All of these questions are further complicated by the varieties of public discourse. A grievance hearing is very different from a chatty interview, both of which are different from a panel session or a speech by the Prime Minister. Different events require different kinds of compromise. Moving from speech to text requires attention, instinct and stylistic flexibility. A transcript can never capture all the nuances of speech; it must rather seek to be as unambiguous, faithful and accurate as possible.