The Association for Qualitative Research
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Tale of two lifestyles

Do you every query what happens when you send a tape off for transcription? Ann Morton could return it from a Sri Lankan jungle.

Transcribers are a breed that are neither seen nor heard. Our work, though vital, is a commodity. Our reputation is based on our speed and accuracy. That doesn’t mean, though, that our lives have to be dull.

Two decades ago, while on honeymoon and through a bizarre chain of events, my husband and I bought a plot of land in Sri Lanka. We commissioned a house there, sending back money as we could afford it, with photographs of building progress winging their way back to us courtesy of visiting tourists.

Since 2002 we now spend half our time there and half in the UK, where I work as a transcriber for The Transcription Agency, based in Kent. The summer months are spent transcribing audio material from cassettes, CDs, mini discs, videos and from Olympus DSS digital recordings at home in Deal. In the winter I take off for my jungle village home where I continue to work for the Agency, but solely on DSS digital recordings.

There, a typical day starts at 6am when bells ringing at the local Buddhist temple wake me. The calling of monkeys and a cacophony of tropical birds and other wildlife follow. It is almost impossible to oversleep.

I do an hour of yoga on a nearby rooftop at sunrise. The views of the surrounding jungle and sea are breathtaking. At about 7.45am an old man, who speaks perfect English, delivers my newspaper and a gift of wild flowers. After checking for emails I read the online editions of the UK press, together with the BBC and Reuters websites for the latest news. It is important that I keep up-to-date with current affairs and ad campaigns as respondents often discuss them.

Then it’s down to work. I type from 8.30am until 2pm with a stop for elevenses — a king coconut and banana — that my neighbours bring. I generally find transcription work interesting. The one frustration is when recordings are of poor quality, either due to background noise or microphone positioning. These recordings can take much longer because of straining to hear. It is doubly frustrating since valuable information can be lost. Jargon is another delaying factor, as I have to search the Internet for clues as to what respondents are talking about.

Afternoons are spent on the beach.

I usually download recordings from the Agency’s website after 9pm. We’re restricted to a dial-up connection that takes much longer to download files than broadband. Sometimes the recordings download in real time. I’m often assisted by one or two villagers who enjoy watching the on-screen graphics showing a globe and a piece of paper fluttering into a folder. When the download is complete there’s much excitement as they rush out on to the veranda to let me know that my work has arrived. Three years on, they never seem to tire of this evening ritual.

There is usually a 24-hour turnaround for completion of transcripts. If, however, the Agency receives work from a client late in the day it can be sent to me for completion by 9am the following day — since I’m five hours ahead of GMT this translates to a 2pm deadline for me. The Agency does not compromise on quality and has strict quality control procedures.

Life in Sri Lanka is pretty much perfect, but there are downsides. The frequent power cuts are the worst aspect, which often leave me working by back-up battery and candlelight. Since they knock out the air conditioning unit, too, with temperatures of around 90°F and 90% humidity I soon start to wilt.

Sri Lanka is an assault on the senses and not a day goes by without seeing or experiencing something new. I find adapting from Sri Lankan life to English life more difficult than vice versa. England seems so quiet and orderly by comparison: a muted watercolour as opposed to a bright oil painting. I class this period of my life as post-career. I left school at 16 and joined Midland Bank (subsequently HSBC) in Sheffield as a typist in 1976. When I left in 1995 I was media relations manager at the bank’s London Headquarters. I spent four years managing a health and exercise centre and then moved on to a solicitor's office for around 18 months before finally joining The Transcription Agency four years ago.

I never imagined that learning to type would be the most valuable skill I would learn, and the one that would allow me to travel the world and continue to work.

 

Anne Morton
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004