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The Bilingual Forensic Transcript

by Joaqun Font, USCCI

Many court cases involving electronic surveillance or recorded interviews feature the presentation of audio recordings as evidence. However, it is impractical for all of the parties involved in these cases to review these recordings' contents by listening to them, because this would be too time-consuming. Just as the most efficient way to review trial proceedings is to rely on a transcript, the most practical way to re-examine the contents of an audio recording is by means of a bilingual forensic transcript (or BFT) which can be copied and distributed to all interested parties, and which can easily be referred to through page and line numbers. This paper seeks to provide an introductory guide to the bilingual forensic transcript as it applies to audio recordings.1 It will first discuss the BFT's main principles before going on to describe its format and notation. It will also provide several practical recommendations for a better appreciation and use of this forensic tool, which is often substantially more complex than even experienced readers tend to realize. Court interpretation provides a useful point of comparison in regard to the BFT's objectives, both with respect to its source language transcript and to its translation into English in an adjoining column of that transcript. The court interpreters goal is to put Individuals with Limited English Proficiency (ILEP) as fully as possible in the position of someone who is fluent with English in the given practical context in which this language produces its meaning. This is described as helping to grant the ILEP a full linguistic presence in the courtroom setting. Following this same logic, the transcription component of the BFT strives to put readers as closely as possible in the position of someone who is listening to audio information in a recording. The translation column in the transcript then assists with the element of a full linguistic presence in this case, of course, by assisting the English-speaking listener and reader who has a limited understanding of the foreign language(s) featured in this recording.2 Court interpretation further provides a useful reference for the standard of accuracy required for transcripts. Thus, the National Association for Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), in its 2004 Draft Recommendations for Transcription and Translation points out that:
...the same strict standard of accuracy observed by interpreters when rendering oral testimony equally applies to the foreign language transcript. This means that transcribers/translators must account to the best of their ability for all sound heard on a recording, whether verbal or non-verbal. This includes: misstatements, mispronounced and non-existent forms, false starts, fillers, interrupted speech, overlapping speech, background noises, unintelligible and inaudible speech, periods of silence, and significant changes in volume. Accordingly, the translation should faithfully reflect the content, language level and style of the transcription. It should be free of editorial insertions, and the transcriber/translator should not make any unjustified assumptions.

BFTs for audio-visual recordings (video, internet, multimedia, etc.) warrant a separate discussion. For an introduction to their complex issues, see my paper, Forensic Transcription for Translation from Audio-Visual Sources: A Selection of Issues and Proposals, which you may request from me at the email or mailing addresses listed at the end of this paper.

The concept of a full linguistic presence provides a strong argument against the use of monolingual or English-languageonly transcripts in a courtroom setting. When such transcripts are in use, ILEPs who participate at any stage of a proceeding may need to have recorded language interpreted back to them in their native language. However, this can only be done with words different from those used or witnessed by them in that original audio source. This situation is clearly confusing for them and, to say the least, runs counter to the goal of their full linguistic presence, whether in the courtroom or other setting.

Bilingual transcripts and their cover sheets strive to, on the one hand, represent the intricacies of the above-mentioned elements (both linguistic and non-linguistic) in the recorded material; and, on the other, to do so with impartiality, clarity, and an economy of means in their format and notation, in order to facilitate the reader's grasp of the audio information. As noted above, there is a very high standard of accuracy demanded of the transcribertranslator. Indeed, if anything his or her work is expected to be even more accurate than an interpreter's, because of the additional time available for linguistic choices. However, as a practical matter, a BFT should not be expected to exhaustively describe each and every one of the details in a source recording, such as minute characteristics of intonation and non-linguistic sounds, whose description would hopelessly clutter a transcript. In practice, the transcribertranslator seeks a balance between, on the one hand, a rigorous degree of exactitude, and on the other the avoidance of a distracting and time-consuming excess of details on a forensic transcript. This may be described as a balance between representation and transparency in the transcript. As we shall see, this balance provides the guiding principle for a BFT's proper format and notation. It is important for BFT readers to keep in mind that even a highly comprehensive and clear transcription-translation should be thought of only as an aid to the understanding of a source recording, not as a substitute for audio sources as evidence.3 Ultimately, no transcript's representation of the numerous elements associated with both linguistic and non-linguistic content such as emotional tone, irony, hesitation, degrees of interference due to the quality of the recording or microphone, etc. can substitute for a listener's patient and direct evaluation of their significance on audio recordings, assisted by a transcript. Given these limitations to the BFT, it is good practice to advise its users that the best possible understanding of audio source information can only be achieved by listening to source recordings in the best possible technical conditions, while simultaneously reading an accurate transcript. (As we shall further discuss below, in some cases this means that readers should be aware of the possibility that the audio's content might be better understood through specialized procedures such as sound enhancement or an intelligibility analysis.4) Fortunately, it is usually only lawyers in a pre-trial setting who need to engage in the task of playing back all of the recordings presented as evidence in a case. Typically, only certain segments in recordings selected by attorneys to support key points in their argument require listening by multiple parties. With the aid of transcripts whose pages reflect the times on these key segments, they can be quickly located and reviewed by digital means. Parties can thus be spared the work of hours of listening to the source information presented in a case. This is not to say that, in some situations, certain parties should not be encouraged to listen to all of the available content. While such an exercise may weigh too heavily on a jury considering a complex case, it may on the other hand be a productive task for a defendant or witness attempting to work through its evidence.

This view is supported by discussion case law on the foreign language transcript, in which the transcript has been held in such cases to be a practical aid to the understanding of a recording. 4 Sound enhancement is distinguished from but supports intelligibility analysis in that the former is concerned with the technical task of improving the audio sources clarity for listening, whereas the latter strives to derive units of meaningful signification which may not be apparent from a surface appreciation of isolated units of linguistic and/or extra-linguistic content.

The BFT's Format and Notation

The reader is welcome to consult our sample cover page, transcript sheet, and certification statement (available as downloads at in order to better follow our exposition at this point. The BFT consists of three elements: a cover page; a transcript with two main columns (one which displays the source language transcription, the other its English-language translation); and a certification statement by the transcriber-translator, attesting to the faithfulness of the work performed. While this last element is straightforward and similar across a broad majority of forensic transcripts, formats for cover pages and bilingual transcripts can be complex, and may vary according to different professional practices and the requirements of each particular assignment. At the time of this writing (July 2005) there is no universally recognized standard for the format and notation conventions used in BFTs and their cover sheets. There is, however, a strong consensus by leading experts in the transcription-translation profession concerning those practices for transcripts which have proven their value in the forensic setting. The present discussion draws from this consensus as it is expressed in the standard reference work, Fundamentals of Court Interpretation (Gonzlez, Vsquez, & Mikkelson, Carolina Academic Press, 1991); in the above mentioned NAJIT Recommendations; and in professional conferences, discussion groups, and workshops on this subject. The BFT's cover page has three sections to it. The first is a caption identifying the recording or call number and the case name and number to which it relates. This caption may also include additional details concerning the phone call and/or the recording, although sometimes part of this information is omitted if it is not deemed useful to a judge or a jury. This additional information can consist of all or part of the telephone number (for privacy reasons, sometimes only the last four digits may be used); the date, start and end time, and duration of the recording; whether the call is incoming or outgoing; and the name of the subscriber to the telephone line which was under surveillance. The second section in the cover page is a bilingual key to the transcription and translation, which explains the notation used for a particular transcript. This notation consists of abbreviations, symbols, and descriptions of special formatting used in the text to comment on its linguistic content. Some of these notations require more explanation on the cover page than others, but all seek to free the transcript page from unnecessary cluttering and repetition of information.5 The most frequently used abbreviations in transcript notation are, of course, those which stand for the names of speakers heard in recordings. In cases in which the transcriber-translator has no information with which to designate a speaker, or is uncertain of this designation, the abbreviation umv or ufv is used, for undesginated male or female voice. Additional speakers are marked as umv2, ufv3, etc.

In cases with numerous transcripts, it may be useful to ask the transcriber-translator to provide a master key the transcription and translation, so that parties can refer to it more easily as they work through extensive reading materials. This alternative may also save a project time and money if the transcriber-translator can refer to this master key on all of his or her cover pages, instead of going through the laborious process of making a different one for each transcript.

Symbols for unintelligible statements (U/I) and for non-linguistic information (-----) are very commonly used in BFTs. Examples of alterations to the normal format of the transcript's text which comment on its meaning include parentheses for overlapping speech; underlining to indicate an aside by a speaker speaking to or from the background of the main conversation; italics for English-language statements; and bold italics to indicate mixed language or code switching (Spanglish, Portuol, etc.). The transcriber-translator's notes make up the third element on the cover page. These are put in brackets, and strive to be as concise as possible. Some transcriber-translators prefer to place their notes in the body of the transcript's text, rather than on the cover page, especially when they are brief and do not appear to clutter or interrupt the flow of information. One type of note which should be standard on all cover pages explains how voice designations were determined for the transcript. In most cases, these designations are derived from sources external to the recording, such as a prosecutor, defense attorney, or law enforcement agent. Alternatively, they may have been determined from an identifying statement or series of statements made by one or more speakers on the recording. In this latter case, the page(s) and line number(s) for the determining statement(s) should be referenced in the note. Besides voice designations, transcriber-translator's notes may also address ambiguous or plural meanings in the statements heard; suggest a likely meaning when one falls just short of being intelligible; indicate meaningful or prolonged changes in a speaker's intonation, pronunciation, or volume; or explain why a given word or expression was chosen in the translation. Sometimes, in order to fully explain a translation choice, the transcriber-translator will relate it to the overall context of linguistic meanings in the recording. The [sic] note in translations, however, indicates those linguistic units (syllables, words, phrases, etc.) which do not appear to allow for a direct translation, even if their surrounding context is taken into account. The complexity in the notation used in a transcript or cover page should, logically, correspond to that in the recorded information. For example, a clear conversation between two articulate parties talking indoors requires much simpler notation than an unclear one between multiple parties, some of which may slur or mispronounce, overlap, suffer dropout from mike or cellphone reception, and/or receive interference from a range of sounds in their environment. In cases with bad audio quality, transcriber-translators may recommend that certain segments of a recording be submitted to specialists who can digitally enhance the source audio and provide an intelligibility analysis of certain words or phrases. However, transcriber-translators will not usually make this recommendation through a note on the BFT, preferring instead to directly inform the attorneys who commissioned the transcript. Thus, if a reader faces a BFT whose notation and content indicates that the source had significant problems with its intelligibility, it may be a good idea for this reader to check on the source's audio quality by listening to it him or herself. He or she may then consider how productive it would be to submit the source recording to forensic analysis by a specialist. In the BFT, the notation which has been explained on the cover sheet is then, of course, applied to each transcript sheet. The actual format of this sheet is relatively straightforward in its content and objectives. The variations on it are mostly due to professional objectives or preferences, rather than to any need arising from the degree of complexity in the recorded material.

Transcript sheets have, first of all, a header and footer. The header identifies the call being transcribed/translated, and displays the pagination. The footer identifies the transcribertranslator and may also provide the recording time corresponding to the end of the text on the transcript page. The identifying information on the footer provides a corroboration of who specifically is responsible for the contents on the transcript. It therefore supports the transcribertranslators attached certification statement which, as we shall see, also contains information identifying the transcript. The recording times placed in footers are of great assistance as a reference when parties wish to check the accuracy of a given passage by playing back the recording, or when a speaker featured on the recording (or who was a witness to its contents) needs to refer to particular points on this recording to jog his or her memory. Recording times further assist readers in getting a sense of how much time elapses in prolonged pauses or interruptions. If many such breaks occur, transcriber-translators may choose to indicate recording times more than once on their sheets, whether in the body of the text, or at its margins.6 The BFT's text is formatted in columns which may be printed with or without visible lines dividing them. The first column from the left provides the line numbers on the transcript sheet. Following paper size and line numbering conventions used by court reporters, these sheets are 8.5 x 11'', most often double-spaced, and numbered 1 to 25. Double-spacing transcript lines is a popular option with lawyers, since it allows them more room to mark the text or add interlineal comments. However, some transcriber-translators and lawyers prefer a format which doublespaces only when there is change to a new speaker or sound source. This choice results in shorter printouts, which may be a plus factor in cases involving voluminous transcripts. In between the line numbering column and the two main columns on the transcript sheet is a notation column, which is where abbreviations and other notations are placed. The usual practice is to next place the foreign-language transcription column to the right of the notation colum, and the translation column further to the right on the page. Because this sequence follows the conventional left-to-right reading in Western languages, it is thought to be the most natural one for a reader who is bilingual or who is comparing the two columns with each other. However, having the translation on the left column does have the advantage that it makes following the voice designations and notation easier for English-language readers and especially for a jury in a trial setting. Once again, as with line spacing, the choice of which column sequence to follow may depend on the particular needs or preferences in each case.
Some Final Practical Considerations

Without delving too deeply into the many linguistic issues raised by transcription-translation, readers may do well to keep three points in mind in order to better follow information provided to them by the BFT. The first concerns the punctuation of the many hedges, false starts, interruptions, and other patterns in speech, which can be quite complex and involve subtle shifts in menaing. Because most BFT readers who are not legal professionals are seldom exposed to transcription, it is very easy for them to forget the exact grammatical rules for such punctuation. Bilingual readers face the additional problem that these rules, although often similar, have subtle differences in meaning across different languages, further contributing to
Some transcriber-translators may also choose to indicate recording times for lengthy unintelligible statements, although just exactly what should be considered a lengthy unintelligible statement, and how best to describe one, is the subject of some debate in the profession. For one approach to this problem, read the notes to U/I symbol featured in the Key to the Transcription and Translation found on Appendix I.

the potential for confusion. It is, therefore, usually a good idea for BFT readers to review in their mind (or with the assistance of a manual of style) the precise differences between different punctuation signs, such as the colon and semi-colon, the En-dash and the Em-dash, and ellipsis. A second recommendation is for readers to exercise caution with U/I symbols, since these do not necessarily stand in for only one or a couple of words or linguistic elements. Informal polls with attorneys conducted by NAJIT members suggest that BFT readers often assume this to be the case. This is understandable given the brevity of the U/I symbol. However, an unintelligible statement which, for example, spans five to ten seconds may in fact have been an (attempt at an) articulation of numerous words or even several sentences. In practical terms, this means that readers should be careful to avoid reflex judgments as to the meanings contained or suggested by portions before and/or after an U/I portion. In some cases they may well benefit from listening to recordings in order to get a better sense of the possible relevance or lack thereof in the information missing in a U/I statement. Thirdly, for those readers who are bilingual, it is often useful to bear in mind that it is not the transcribed text but rather the source recording's audio which is, in fact, the actual source for the translation performed in a BFT. I.e., the transcriber-translator is often influenced in his or her translation choice not just by what a source word or series of words might appear to be on paper, but by the intonation of speech in the source recording. Consequently, for the bilingual reader who arrives at the impression that a certain word or phrase has received an improper nuance in the translation it is, once again, often a good idea to consider this element of intonation by listening to the recording. Another word of advice for readers of a bilingual forensic transcript is for them to be alert as to the relationship between, on the one hand, non-linguistic and background elements in a recording, and on the other, the recording's flow of linguistic information. Very often, nonlinguistic elements are not simply a burdensome distraction or interference of this flow, but can provide a significant context or even crucial link to the linguistic information on a recording. In conclusion, we hope the preceding exposition has given our readers a sense of the intricate details behind a proper BFT. One final recommendation which we should like to make is that readers should not hesitate to voice their doubts or insights into either the transcription or translation portion of a BFT. Good transcriber-translators welcome questions, corrections, constructive criticism, and other feedback on their work. After all, experience has taught them that this feedback will usually contribute to a fuller achievement of the faithfulness in representation and transparency in means which are the ideals behind the bilingual forensic transcript.
________________ Copyright 2005 by Joaqun Font. All Reserved.

The author will appreciate any comments, suggestions, or other feedback, which may be emailed to, or mailed to: Joaqun Font, 955 Massachusetts Ave. #448, Cambridge, MA, 02139.