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Popular misconceptions about court transcriptionists

Thursday, October 29, 2020 @ 1:38 PM | By Susan Porter

Susan Porter %>
Susan Porter
Authorized Court Transcriptionists (ACTs) hear a lot of things that make us either cringe or laugh about how we are perceived. We all need to laugh once in a while, even when it hurts, so here we go!

Misconception #1: We have magical ears

COUNSEL: I couldn't understand that last witness’s accent. I only got every other word.

THE COURT: Me too. Never mind, I'll order a transcript.

We will do our darndest and play the recording several times, even ask a colleague to listen before throwing in the towel. But chances are, if you didn’t understand someone you were in direct conversation with in the first place, there’s not a prayer we will make sense of it!

At a recent proceeding where some of the participants were actually in court and observing COVID protocols, a remote witness struggled to hear most of counsel’s questions. During a break, counsel apologized to the court reporter, saying that she was uncomfortable taking off her mask, even though she was a good distance away from anyone in court.

“No problem,” answered the reporter, “just so long as you know that if a transcript is ordered, everything you’ve said will read as [indiscernible].”

Apparently, even with a mask, you can tell when someone grimaces; that counsel kept her mask down during subsequent questioning.

Misconception #2: We submit rough drafts because we’re lazy

COUNSEL: “I’m reading the transcript for last Thursday, Your Honour, and the transcriptionist must have been either lazy or sleeping for this section. There’s all these dots .... I don't know, I guess they meant to go back and fill it in or something.”

OK. [ Breathes deeply.] Those “dots” are ellipses. And while readers who have experience with university essays understand their traditional use (i.e., when some quoted words or phrases have been omitted), in court transcripts they are also used to indicate when people cross-talk/interrupt each other (three dots, “...”) and/or when they simply trail off without completing a sentence (four dots, “....”) Do you see lines and lines ending in dots? Lots and lots (Me, me, me!..) and lots more (like, No, over here, my turn, no fair!..) “lazy” dots? It means many interruptions were made....

And although our formatting rules don’t generally allow for proper legends to explain our process beyond the use of “[sic]” or “(ph)”, personally, as a rebuttal to misperceptions of laziness, I have taken to adding the following legend to all of my transcripts:

 [sic]  Indicates preceding word has been reproduced verbatim and is not a transcription error;

 (ph)  Indicates preceding word has been spelled phonetically

 [indiscernible] Transcriptionist unable to discern word(s) despite best efforts

.../.... Indicates interruption and/or incomplete thought

The only time I deliberately avoid [sic] is when English is obviously a second language for someone. To [sic] that many errors would be visually stressful to the reader. In this situation, I make an additional note like: “Grammatical errors made by Mr. Garble-Tongue have not been flagged and are transcribed verbatim.” Enough said.

Misconception #3: Spelling things for the record is a waste of time

In an earlier article (Oct. 5, 2020) I talked about the importance of our being able to know the correct spellings for names of people/places/things. We ACTs rarely, if ever, have access to the documentation that counsel, judges and clerks do. I got the following bits from colleagues of mine.

This one is from a distance hearing, where only the clerk and the judge are in the courtroom:

NEWBIE CROWN: This occurred at 24 Parsamonduh (ph) Drive in Gamblebore (ph).

CLERK REGISTRAR: Court’s indulgence, could the Crown please spell those out for the record? 

NEWBIE CROWN:  But it’s all spelled on the Informations. 

The judge shut down the clerk’s request and refused to take the few seconds to put the correct spellings on the record.

How about when someone says a name like “Grigori Chernoviasynski” and doesn’t spell it. Then later on, the same person says, “John Smith, S-M-I-T-H, for madam reporter.” Or how about — I kid you not: “Chernoviasynski, the usual spelling.” 

Seasoned counsel and reasonable justices do understand the importance of getting things on the record, for the record. Every. Single. Day. There is no guarantee that the ACT who has carriage of Day 11 will ever have access to information from prior days.

Misconception #4: We can easily do a three-day trial over a weekend

Well, maybe. If the days aren’t marathons and the recording is excellent and we limit our human-function breaks (including any other weekend plans we might have had), one ACT might be able to churn out a whack of completed transcript that quickly.

Generally speaking, one hour of recorded speech will yield about 35 pages of transcript. My personal best was 100 pages in one horribly long day (from which it took me three days to recover), but usually it’s more like 50 to 60 pages (and sadly, as low as 30 with bad COVID-era recordings.)

An ACT with stenographic shorthand or other technology tools might up that to a couple of hundred pages, but chances are, we will need to collaborate with a few ACT colleagues. This involves sharing running lists of proper spellings (if we are lucky enough to have them in our relevant sections) and the lead ACT will need to carefully assemble and proofread the combined work, to create a seamless/consistent transcript.

So yes, it’s possible. And we like to make it LOOK easy to the ordering party, but it takes a lot of organizational and time-management skills. And while it is often true that “if you want something done quickly, give it to the busiest person you know,” we might also need to reshuffle an existing deck of orders in order to meet your deadline. So if we ask you if there is any wiggle room in your rush deadline, it’s only because we have to plan accordingly.

Misconception #5: Why don’t we just get an automatic Zoom transcript?

I am not going to spend much time on this here, except to say that while we use many technical aids and speech-to-text software might be a little bit useful in certain highly controlled environments: Perfect microphones, nobody ever cross-talking, no speech impediments/accents slang (and courtrooms most definitely don’t fit that definition) — the results are simply too “drafty” to be of use to anyone other than the actual transcriptionist and could actually be dangerous.

When “Tea, Earl Grey, hot; make it so,” is a reality beyond a Star Trek set, I will hang up my ACT spurs. Meanwhile, I continue to hone my skills, rely on my noise-cancelling headphones and continually refer to my Canadian dictionary and knowledge of normal court procedure.

Misconception #6: The transcript is an important piece of evidence

Now, this one is actually true. We certify the work under the Evidence Act. It is the written record of what was actually said in court, not what people wished they had said. And in the same way expert witness reports are vetted and examined before being given weight, we sorely wish that more counsel (and judges, sadly) remembered how important the creation of this expert evidence is.

We can help you. The fact that you are reading this article helps. And we have people able to make presentations to groups about how you can improve/protect the record in the first place. You can be part of the solution to this problem while the Ministry of the Attorney General is considering our urgent proposal about Ontario court transcripts at risk. We are still waiting! Do feel free to read it if you haven’t already.

Authorized court transcriptionist (ACT) and certified associate project manager (CAPM) Susan Porter is owner/operator of Sporterpro Transcription Services. Look her up on LinkedIn or e-mail her at

Photo credit / ne2pi ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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