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Hearing difficult things - the human side to interview transcription

Cathy Bennett, Director of Fingertips Typing Services, told us how her team of transcribers deal with typing difficult content.

When we think of working from home, no commuting, getting up 30 minutes before you need to start work, making cups of tea in your own kitchen, sitting in your own living room for lunch, it sounds like a dream job, right? But that’s not always the case, as we’ve found.

I run Fingertips Typing services – one of the main transcription services we offer is interview transcription. Our typists transcribe interviews covering a wide array of subjects, and generally speaking, we thoroughly enjoy what we are typing, especially when it’s around topics like current affairs, culture and market research. However, sometimes we do deal with subjects that are particularly upsetting and distressing. I spoke to some of my team to find out how they deal with the impact of transcribing difficult subjects such as domestic violence, child abuse or current affairs that could be worrying.

Kate explained a couple of instances where she found interviews particularly hard to deal with, “I got involved with the interviews between an author and a victim of child abuse who had decided to tell their story. The author needed help with verbatim audio of the interviews between himself and the book subject, and obviously it was important that the quotes in the book were entirely accurate. He did warn me that it was going to be a bit harrowing. Listening to the details of what he had been through was very, very difficult, especially as I had young grandchildren of my own at the time, but I got through it and the book was published.”

Another of my team, Jean, said, “Transcribing anything to do with child abuse has made me feel ‘uncomfortable’ and sick, but not for me, for the child. I find that I am angry more than anything about what has happened. I did a case many years ago when the child was interviewed and that was extremely hard to listen to. The child did not know he was being interviewed of course because of his age. The police and accompanying adult were very professional, but it was horrific as he remembered all the details.”

Most of our typists have rightly said that it’s not our place to judge. Jean said, “Domestic abuse cases also need to be handled quickly and professionally, and without judgement. Even when it’s difficult to hear some of the details, you have to step aside and get on with the job. I like to think I play a small part in justice being done, so I would never turn down these cases, and I think that I am professional enough to handle it.”

Sally told me that she tries to switch off but that it isn’t always possible, “As I've got older I've learned to ‘switch off’ and get on with the job but there are some that still stick out after years. A particular one that I've never forgotten was transcribing witness statements from victims and survivors of the Rwandan massacre back in the mid-90s. These were shared between several transcriptionists and we were all actually offered counselling after.

It's very difficult sometimes but like nurses and other healthcare workers, social workers and others you have to try to not get emotionally involved or you would be a wreck. The swearing in police interviews shocked me at first but you do get desensitised and I'm not sure if that is a good or bad thing. It has certainly expanded my vocabulary!

I try to just concentrate on getting the audio into the transcript without thinking about what I'm typing, but don’t always succeed.”

Regardless of the topic, we will take on most transcription work. Ann told me, “I don’t recall ever having to refuse to type anything and I doubt that I would. I used to work for a private investigator who looked into failings at local authority care homes for young people and that could be quite shocking, but it was also very interesting. Some of the medical files I type can be upsetting such as for people pursuing legal cases regarding terrible accidents or surgical errors which have caused life-changing disabilities.

Even some of the disciplinaries I type can be very upsetting, where employees have defrauded their company. Often they’ve done it because they’re desperate and when they know the game is up they break down and sob, that makes me sad.”

All of our transcribers are highly professional, but when it comes down to it, they are human and complete detachment isn’t always possible. It’s important to look after your own wellbeing when doing work like this, and taking breaks to do something ‘lighter’ from time to time can help. Regardless of the topic, we thoroughly enjoy our work and welcome all audio and non-audio transcription work, whatever the subject. If you’d like to know more about what we do, visit us at www.fingertipstyping.co.uk.

Cathy Fingertips Typing Services

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