The word “verbatim” is a very common word among the reporting, transcription, and subtitling professions. “Verbatim” is not just a technical term, it is also a term used in everyday language. To understand how popular it is, try to search for “verbatim” and some other common words on Google. You will get 74,000,000 results for “verbatim”, against 14,900,000 results for “captioning”, and 50,200,000 for “typewriter”, for example. “The Beatles” is just a little more popular than “verbatim”, with 77,700,000 results!
But what does “verbatim” mean? To start answering this question, the easiest thing to do is looking at the definition. All main online dictionaries provide more or less the same definition of “verbatim”: “in exactly the same wordsas were used originally” (Oxford Languages). The website of the British Institute of Verbatim Reporters (BIVR) provides more details, adding that the same words as the original should be “in the same order”. So far, nothing difficult to understand, but then the BIVR website explains that: “Repeating something verbatim should preserve the entire meaningof the original statement.”
This poses other questions. Are we sure that writing down what is said by somebody manages to preserve the same meaning? Further, are we sure that, when taking out all non-verbal features of spoken language, such as intonation, accent, volume, gestures, facial expressions and so on, we understand the same meanings as were expressed orally? If we think of the many times that we do not manage to properly communicate with a person with whom we are chatting, we realise that this is not always the case. “A moment’s reflection”, adds the BIVR website, “will show that even matter which has to be transcribed in a strictly verbatim manner has to go through an editingprocess if only to the extent of being punctuated.”
The last question concerns the notion of a word: what does the word “word” mean? The most popular definition says that a word is “a single unit of language that has meaning and can be spoken or written” (Cambridge Dictionary). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a more technical definition and explains that words are “the smallest linguistic [phonemic or graphemic] expressions that are conventionally associated with a … meaning”. While we all agree on words such as “house”, “love”, or “dog” used in a non-ambiguous context, what about non-conventional linguistic units used in non-conventional contexts? Think of irony, which may signify the opposite of the conventional meaning of a word; think of non-phonological or non-verbal utterances such as “pfff” when used as an expression of annoyance or disappointment; or think of parts of words used to mean something without saying the whole word (e.g. “what the f…?”). On the contrary, are conventional words always meaningful in a traditional sense? Think of lapsus, other unintentionally uttered words, or words used as fillers, such as “you know”, “kind of” and “you see”.
Recently, I have carried out an experiment for the BIVR, the results of which are yet to be published. In the forthcoming publication, I will show that professionals in the field of diamesic translation, including court reporters, live captioners, and transcribers, in fact “translate” spoken words to the written form in ways that can sometimes produce different meanings. The following are examples of conflicting transcriptions of the same spoken utterance:
- For-, for-, for-, fortunately…
- The movie was about the old English teacher, Lilly.
The movie was about the Old-English teacher, Lilly.
- I also like the scene where Irish gangsters fight O’Sheen, Connor and Adam.
I also like the scene where Irish gangsters fight: O’Sheen, Connor and Adam.
- It was a line, mwah! Ridiculous!
It was a ridiculous line.
These examples show that the notion of word is vague, as what some professionals consider a word other professionals do not (e.g. “For-”, “mwah”), or translate the same spoken output as a single word or as two (e.g. Old-English vs old English). Moreover, they show that the process of transcribing every single word of a spoken utterance in exactly the same order does not always provide the same meaning, as punctuation may provide a different meaning for the same set of words (e.g. see example 3). Finally, they show that the same order is not always preserved if the professional thinks that the intention of the speaker would be altered (see example 4). Further to these examples, another interesting result concerns fillers, which were considered by all volunteers in the experiment as words to be included in a verbatim transcript, rather than omitted (e.g. “As last time we also had, you know, the same food”).
As can be seen from these examples, the notion of “verbatim” is strictly related to the notions of word, meaning, and editing that pertain to each profession and personal interpretation of the same spoken output. This means that the concept of verbatim cannot be limited to “in exactly the same words in the same order as were used originally”. Even the professional definition of the word “verbatim” provided by the BIVR website and detailed research does not manage to provide an objective understanding of what the editing process of a verbatim transcript should be, as it involves not only punctuation, but also lexis, word order and meaning. In light of this experiment, meaning should be the focus of any definition of verbatim, unless the diamesic translation community agrees that it should not be taken into consideration, as editing – punctuation included as shown in the experiment – may be too subjective and in conflict with the notion of “word for word”.
Carlo Eugeni is the chairman of Intersteno Scientific Committee and Tiro’s scientific advisor.