Italian Journalist and filmmaker, Noemi Distefano explores the art of transcribing and translating interviews with foreign speakers.
Transcribing interviews for video editing purposes is quite a tedious process and it can become even more daunting if the original spoken audio is in a foreign language.
If you are involved in the translation of audio or video content or planning to produce content with foreign interviews, I hope you will find my own experience and the steps I followed, a useful reference.
So let’s go back to 2017 and the time that I took a flight to India to film a short feature documentary by myself. When my days as a Journalism Master student came to an end, I wanted my final project to be something different, challenging, that would push my limits.
I decided sneaking around Asia’s biggest slum with a camera would be that challenge. I was ready to face a serious amount of difficulties, but for some weird reason, I was confident the language barrier wouldn’t be an issue. India is a former British colony after all – everyone speaks English, right?
Half of the interviewees my fixer had approached, didn’t know a single word of English. They spoke Hindi and I had no budget for an interpreter. Luckily a friend helped me out or I’d have been stuck!
The simplicity or the complexity of transcribing and translating interviews depends very much on how you film your interviews. Transcribing interviews is a tedious and often stressful process so it’s important to have a process that works well for you. Here’s the 8 easy steps I followed:
1. Film interviews with an interpreter on set and use their expertise
To quote the great Cicero: “you are the master of your own destiny” and you are starting to shape that destiny, the moment you click record on your camera.
With an interpreter on set you can be 100% sure of the interviewees answers and already be confident that you’ll have ready-to-edit content.
When you get only one shot at the interview, it’s important to check that you’ve got what you need before packing away your equipment and going home. Can you imagine the panic of starting the transcription and realising you haven’t got anything relevant?
In my experience interviewing Hindi speakers, I found it was crucial to review the material with my interpreter on set, to know that I was gathering some useful content to work with.
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2. Use a clapperboard to mark every question and answer
Marking up your audio or video is important to break down the interviews into smaller clips. You can also do this at a later stage if you are using an audio –to- text converter, or any editing software, but doing it now can be a HUGE time-saver.
Using a clapperboard, when you export the content, you will already have macro sections of a few minutes to work with, rather than a big chunks with hours of video. This makes a huge difference to the time needed during the edit.
3. Ask concise questions to get concise answers
This point applies to every interview, no matter the language spoken by your interviewees. Even a short three minutes clip will take you a relatively consistent amount of time to write out. If your questions are too broad, it is more likely that the answers will be long-winded and may wander off-topic.
It’s easy to get lost in long sentences during the transcription process. Especially where the meat of the content (the important messages you want to use in the edit) are scattered.
In summary: when filming: don’t wait for your transcripts to tell you there is a lot of ‘blah, blah, blah’. Ask concise questions, break down the interview into small clips with a clapperboard and check you’ve got what is expected with your interpreter before leaving. This will significantly reduce your transcription, translation and video editing costs later.
4. Label your clips
Remember it is better to create macro sections when filming using a clapperboard. This will help you to have an immediate understanding of the content of a specific clip. If you know the content of your clips by their code or their name, when editing, you don’t have to go back and listen again to what you already want to discard. I found myself discarding entire macro sections and never going back to them. Labelling is vital, especially, if like me, you are going back home with over 250GB of content.
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5. Decide how to transcribe and translate the interviews
So you’ve got all the material prepared and when it comes to producing the transcripts and translations there are a variety of options to choose from depending on the complexity of the content, timescales and budget.
a) Outsourcing to a Transcription Agency
This solution is a good one for projects where you don’t want to be hands-on or where you need a faster turnaround. A transcription agency can quickly get accurate transcripts from and into almost every language in the world. Most agencies will charge per minute of material, but may charge for the translation by the word.
b) Hiring a Freelance Transcriptionist
This is a good option if you have a bit more time and you don’t have huge amounts of content. A freelancer will often do as good a job as an agency, but I’d still recommend that their work is proofread and edited by another linguist. This will cost a little more and increase the turnaround, but it will ensure you’re as close to 100% accuracy as possible.
c) Automatic Speech to Text Converters
There is a plethora of automatic transcription software (machine transcription tools) available in the cloud that will convert speech into text. There is also bespoke software used by transcriptionists and interpreters, some free, others paid or with yearly subscriptions.
Automatic speech to text converters can be a timesaving solution but they rarely transcribe with 100% accuracy. You will still need to proofread and edit the transcript before it’s correct. They can be huge time saver if the audio is clear and you are transcribing a language you can read and understand.
Many can also offer translations but it’s not going to be as accurate as a human translator, particularly if the speakers are using local colloquialisms, humour or metaphor.
d) Manually (this is what I did)
In my case, I didn’t have a big budget and I decided not to use automatic transcription. I used Express Scribe only for a few interviews in English. It allows you to control the audio speed through software settings or external hardware, such as pedals. It’s a manual process but sufficed for my needs.
For the rest of the Hindi interviews I could have started with an automatic transcription, using a cloud-based tool such as Happy Scribe but it wouldn’t have given me 100% accuracy and I’d still need it to be translated.
If I’d had the budget, I probably would have used Voquent or hired a freelancer to do this part for me. They could have given me a time-stamped transcription and translation with the Hindi and English text to reference during the video edit. This means I could get on with the edits myself without anyone else being involved.
Luckily for me, my friend was there to help me out again. I first exported the macro sections I mentioned above into my editing software (Avid Media Composer) and transcoded them.
My interpreter then manually played the clips from the editing software and provided me with a simultaneous translation in English. Hiring a linguist to sit in the edit with you is a good solution if you don’t have the time to get everything transcribed and translated.
6. Mark your clips for recording and editing
Most video and audio editing software will allow you to insert comments / marks.
So, during the transcription from Hindi into English with my interpreter in real-time, I marked up my video and audio where I picked out some outstanding content.
This is how I created micro sections within macro sections and when I got to edit, I knew where to look.
7. Note the timestamps during transcription
While transcribing, note down the exact second your interviewee starts and finishes a specific answer in the video. Not only will your editing be quicker, your translations will be more accurate. Whilst 99% of my audience doesn’t understand Hindi it’s not an excuse for being lazy about the sync!
If you are producing content for an English-speaking audience, you will eventually need to either dub over the interviews or insert subtitles. For this film I decided to dub over. The original language needed to perfectly match the voice I was hearing in English.
As it is not a movie, I did not want to completely replace the original voice. I wanted the English voice over to ‘breathe’ and leave some space to hear the original audio in the background. This is a common technique used in factual news and documentary.
With the timestamps, I can better prepare a final script for the voice over recording. A time-stamped bilingual script will make this much easier for the voice over talent, studio and engineer. With the audio synced it’s easy to drop it into the edit.
8. Dubbing the interviews
Now I have the final film ready for dubbing, along with a time-stamped bilingual voice over script. I head to the recording studio and record sync to picture. After the recording, the audio is edited to give me a wav file, ready to drop into my video edit.
If I hadn’t time-stamped the transcript it would make it much harder to locate the appropriate sections and the recording session would take longer. It can save even more time if you pick out the specific sections you want to dub, especially if you have multiple interviews and you’re using multiple dubbing artists. This way you aren’t spending time in the session with material that’s irrelevant to the voice over artist selected.
View my finished documentary below!
The above process is just my own experience and depending on your project’s timeline and budget you may go a different route. I managed to achieve what I wanted and I’m pleased with the documentary. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it too! Feel free to leave a comment on YouTube or message me on Twitter or Instagram.
About the author
Noemi Distefano is a broadcast journalist based in the UK.