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Turning Spoken German into Written English

Transcription is the process of converting speech into text.

Add the element of translation and it’s a service you’d expect any good German translation agency or freelance translator to offer.

However, it relies on the translator having a very good ear for German, not just a good eye! I would it say it's a pretty tricky skill for anyone who hasn't lived in a German-speaking environment for a reasonable period of time.

I usually listen to the recording in German, translate it in my head and then type out the English translation directly.

Unless the client needs a written German copy, this is quicker than the two stage process of first producing a written German version and then translating it.

It's great fun and makes a break from normal translation work. It is also a good test of “real” German language skills! If you don’t understand the accent or the slang spoken by the people in the recording, you are simply lost! As a result, it's a great test of a translator’s abilities!

It's not as easy as you think!

Just as most German texts are not written with a view to being translated, many sound recordings are made with no consideration of the poor translator who will subsequently have to decipher what is being said!

The Germans are great engineers and the majority of my transcription work, to date, has been producing texts of interviews recorded in German factories.

Typical challenges:

  • Separating out the background noise from the recorded conversation – factory processes, doors opening and mobile phones going off are common. 
  • Everyone talking at once – after all it’s a normal conversation, we all do it! 
  • Slang, inaudible mumbling and interruptions
  • Strong regional accents or dialects – it ain’t all Hochdeutsch
  • Dodgy grammar - speakers often veer off, mid-thought, in the midst of a sentence and change topic. 
  • Technical terminology – the participants know exactly what they are talking about and “swallow” or mumble technical terms which are new to the translator. They often only become clear after having been repeated several times.

What should you expect to pay?

First be sure about the service you actually need:

  • Transcription – listening to the German audio recording and turning this into a German text.
  • Transcription and translation – taking the spoken German conversation, translating it in your head and then typing out the translated English text.

Professional German to English translators (or vice versa) have standard line/page and hourly rates. And this is the hourly rate which will be reflected in transcription charges.

According to the translator forums and my own experience, the  time needed to transcribe an audio recording will be between 4 and 6 times the length of the recording itself.

i.e. 1 minute of recorded speech = 4 to 6 minutes of transcribing time.

So take the length of the recording, multiply by 4 to 6, and that should roughly indicate the number of hours work involved.

You may pay extra where.....

Turning pure German audio into German text is faster than translating the audio directly into English, so rates may vary for the two activities.

The translator may also charge for those “associated” activities, such as keeping note of, and listing, all the time codes, so there is a record of when each question or answer starts and stops. This is a fabulously time consuming process.

Tips for translators:

  • Boosting your transcription skills:

Once you know enough German to translate, you just need to hone up your listening comprehension skills.

My suggestion – tune into a German radio station and record a programme or an interview. Practice typing out exactly what is said. It’s a great way of “getting your ear in”, and recognizing all the German varieties of the “ums” and “ers” which litter spoken English sentences!

Regularly listening to German radio or German TV is something all good German translators will be doing anyway.

  • Software to speed up the process:

Many translators will use speech recognition software - it's not only faster, it also helps reduce all that tapping at the keyboard!

The translator can read an original German text, work out the appropriate English translation and then, instead of typing,  speak their translation out loud.

The software then transforms the spoken word into written text and displays it on your computer screen. I use Dragon Naturally Speaking software to do this - it's inexpensive and very effective. I love it.

I hope this article is useful. Other articles in this Buying Translation series are listed below.

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Joanna Scudamore-Trezek

I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna,  Austria.  I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively.  How can I help you today?