The LOST ART of Transcribing – should transcription be treated as a ‘lost’ art – how transcriptionists and transcribers were viewed throughout history.

The Lost Art of Transcription

Should transcription be treated as a ”lost” art?

Recently, a friend and I were discussing how people frequently fail to perceive transcribing as a lost writing art.  Perhaps this failure is due to the common misconception that just about anyone can easily perform the duties of a transcriber nowadays.  Or perhaps, this oversight is due to the fact that most people simply do not think of transcription as any type of art, let alone as lost art.  Even the most skilled transcriptionists tend to forget they are among a special class of artists.  So perhaps it is time for everyone to revise their perspectives of transcription, especially now that there is a high demand for skilled transcribers.

Is Writing an Art, Craft, or Neither?

One of the major reasons for all this confusion is that there are numerous ideologies as to what comprises art and what comprises craftwork.  Some people think of writing as a form of art while others consider writing to be a type of craft or trade.  Others may consider writing to be neither art nor craft, since it lies somewhere between the two. 

Transcribing frequently requires the transcriptionist to have the skills of an artist and the knowledge of a craftsperson.  And still others consider transcription as a form of writing that should not be considered as an art or as a craft.  This is due to its more common legal and medical applications as well as the use of transcription for commercial, religious and political purposes.

However, historians and archaeologists have clearly demonstrated that transcribing developed as a very valuable form of art thousands of years ago.  In its original form, transcribing was carried out by well-trained scribes that were held in high regard throughout various cultures and countries.  These scribes were considered artisans despite the fact that the majority of their work was carried out for commercial, religious, legal, medical and political reasons.

Technology’s Affect on Transcribing as an Art

Up until the eighteenth century, there was very little confusion as to what constituted art, craft and professional work.  All forms of writing were considered to be works of art until the invention of the printing press occurred.  After the invention of the printing press and other technologies, the accepted standards and definitions for arts, crafts and professional trades became more controversial.  Reading and writing became more common skills among the various populations, which then made  the skills and knowledge required of transcribers appear less specialized and valuable. 

The same problem arose in other areas of art as well, when new technology made it easier to produce and reproduce painted artwork. Some would argue that screen printing and computerized graphic artwork should not be considered to be true forms of art.  Yet, a great deal of artistic ability and a high level of skill are essential for anyone who wishes to be successful in these fields of employment.

Misconceptions about Transcription

Common misconceptions also contribute to the confusion as to whether transcription is an art, craft or neither.  These misconceptions are intentionally and unintentionally spread via numerous forms of media that is produced by government agencies, commercial entities, and educational institutions.  With current economic trends forcing businesses to downsize and unemployment rates to rise, various government agencies are encouraging citizens to become self-employed transcriptionists. The government’s perspective tends to treat transcribing any type of data as easy to do, if a person has basic typing or keyboarding skills and the right equipment.  Numerous educational institutions and private industries which profit by selling training materials and courses also project this ideology to the mass population.

Numerous entrepreneurs and employers are also under the impression that anyone with basic typing skills and modern equipment should be capable of performing transcription tasks.  Then there are all those commercial enterprises which earn their income by convincing people that they can perform these tasks simply by using the companies’ products.  For instance, allegedly anyone can write a novel or business letter simply by utilising a software program that has the computer type whatever the person says into the microphone.  Supposedly, the document will come out perfectly, with no errors, even on the first try.  However, this simply is not true.  It typically takes a person literally hundreds of hours training any computer with speech recognition capabilities to even begin to recognize the person’s speech patterns.  The documents are filled with numerous errors, and the spell-checker does not catch all of these errors.

Why Transcribing Should Be Considered an Art

The value of any form of art is determined by how common the skills and knowledge required of the person performing the work are among the general members of society.  For instance, most humans can draw or paint on a basic level, such as drawing stick figures on paper.  However, very few can create an intricate, realistic portrait utilising oil paints, paint brushes and canvas.  The same holds true for musicians.  Everyone can produce sounds in a variety of ways, but not everyone can produce sounds with a perfect pitch, flow, and rhythm.  Nor can very many people accurately compose, arrange or transpose music onto a sheet of paper for multiple instruments.

Just as painting, sculpting, and playing an instrument on a professional level requires a person to have a special set of skills, talent, knowledge and expertise, so does writing.  While most humans are now capable of basic reading and writing skills, they do not have the special set of skills, talent, expertise, and knowledge that are essential for performing transcription. 

Most of the general population do not have an excellent command of their native language or the English language, including accurate use of grammar, syntax, spelling and vocabulary.  Even fewer humans develop excellent listening skills or are able to distinguish the various distorted sound and voices on a recording.  Still fewer can type verbatim what they hear being said at the same time as they are listening to a variety of people talking simultaneously.

A transcriptionist must type while listening to a warped recording of people speaking with varying voice quality, accents, tones, inflections and speeds of talking.  Since very few people are capable of performing these tasks, transcribing, especially in the form of transcription, should be considered a valuable art form.  And since fewer people are putting out the effort to truly develop each of the essential skills and their knowledge of the various languages, transcribing is indeed rapidly becoming a lost art, despite the recent increase in the number of transcription services.