For the the first part of this series, please go here.
Federal News Service makes its money by providing “timely verbatim English-language transcription of U.S., Russian and Middle East government press briefings, speeches, and conferences. FNS also transcribes and translates broadcast interviews on official policy covering a broad range of national and international issues.”
OK, it’s a transcription service, no big deal. Or it isn’t until you consider what transcription actually consists of, and that there are real people – human beings – who have to do it. Imagine a stuffy, windowless room with a few computers in it. Next to each computer is a set of well-worn, perpetually moist headphones. On the floor below each computer is a pedal. The transcriber puts the headphones on and activates a recording of whatever is being transcribed by pushing on the pedal. If I remember correctly, you could also rewind and fast forward by using the pedal, but I’m not entirely sure because I’ve largely repressed memories from this time of my life. Anyway, the point is you push the pedal to play the recording, you listen to the recording, you type for as long as you can, you push the pedal to pause, you finish what you were typing, and you push the pedal to start it up again.
To be honest with you, I didn’t really mind the work the first few times I went in. I think the first job I had was transcribing a press conference given by Condoleeza Rice about something having to do with Russia. Arms control maybe. Actually, as I remember that particular job, I’m reminded that I felt a minor thrill at the fact that there I was, a kid from Farmington, Utah, working in Washington, D.C. – less than a mile from the White House! – in the fields of government and diplomacy. I’m not kidding. I actually felt that.
Lesson number one for all you kids out there: The thrill of being in and around something awesome always fades. I’ve experienced this several times in my relatively short career. You get a job working at an awesome company in a cool city in a great building next to XYZ famous landmark, and in about a month you just think of it as a job at a company in a building next to a landmark you don’t even notice anymore. So, next time you take a job, make sure you do it because you like the work associated with that job, because being a mile away from the White House only gets you through so many hours of transcription.
The press conferences could occasionally be interesting – basically like watching 8 hours of C-SPAN – and it beat getting a job at Starbucks. And although a few hours of work didn’t uncover any latent passion for the process of transcription, I was hard up for cash and the CIA recruiter I met at Gallaudet University wasn’t returning my calls, so I kept showing up. One day my very sweet and incomprehensibly cheerful supervisor informed me that I had acquitted myself very well in the week or so I’d been working there and was being given a new, very important assignment.
FNS had as its client the Smithsonian, which had just finished recording an oral history with Edgar Anderson. THE Edgar Anderson. Enough said. Not enough said? For the disgusting Philistines among our readers, Edgar Anderson is perhaps the most important woodworker to ever work wood in America. Because our government insists on investing our hard-earned tax dollars in only those projects that provide critical services to our citizens, the Smithsonian had hired someone to interview Edgar over the course of many hours.
So there I was, holed up like a rat with headphones on, listening to this an insufferable woman interview Edgar. I can still call to my mind’s eye the way I visualized her as i listened to her interview Edgar, hour after hour, day after day. Sensible black shoes (for a bad back), jeans with pleats, a sweatshirt tucked into the jeans, and maybe a little vest. She sounded exactly like a minor NPR announcer – the kind with an obscure show that even people who make a big deal out of looooving Ira Glass have never heard of.
You know what? I shouldn’t describe her so harshly. She was just doing her job. Assuming her job description was, “Go and conduct a 300-hour interview with famous American woodworker Edgar Anderson, asking him literally every single question you can think of, followed by literally every single follow-up question you can think of. No matter is too minute, no happening too inconsequential, for you to ask many hundreds of questions about it.”
“Edgar, how did you meet your wife?”
“At the county fair.”
“Oh, my, how interesting! Who is that county named after?”
“Thomas Jefferson, I believe.”
“My goodness! Our third President?”
“I see. Did you ever carve anything pertaining to Thomas Jefferson?”
“No, I don’t believe I did.”
“And why was that?”
“I don’t recall, just never felt the urge to, I suppose.”
“Mmmm hmmm. Is that common, as an artist? Not to get an urge to do something?”
“I imagine so.”
“Would you say woodworkers are more apt not to get an urge to do a particular thing, than, say, sculptors?”
You know, as miserable as this experience was, I have to admit I developed a soft spot for old Edgar. He was a gruff old fellow, and rather reminded me of my grandfathers. He was very, very old at the time the interviews were conducted, and you could tell he was mystified as to why anyone would care to know the answers to the questions he was being asked while at the same time being tickled that someone cared to ask and record them for posterity.
That being said, Edgar was, as we say in the transcription business, a total IN (Inaudible Nightmare). The old fellow never quite got the hang of speaking into the microphone in spite of, oh, I don’t know, 700 – 800 reminders from the interviewer. Moreover, Edgar had developed that dreaded symptom of old age that only seems to afflict men – the whistled “S.” Lots and lots of rewind-and-replays with the old foot pedal whenever Edgar was speaking.
A couple of hours with Edgar wouldn’t have been too bad; indeed, they would have given me a welcome respite from the stress of playing a vital role in formulating US policy on Russian nuclear proliferation. But after a couple of days I started to crack. I briefly considered elaborating and improving upon the recordings of the interviews with things I believe Edgar would have said had he been asked the right questions.
Things like, “And then in ’42, I considered entering the service, but ultimately realized that I could have a much larger impact on the war effort by creating anti-Hitler woodwork,” or, “You know what, Jean? Can I be honest with you? I don’t even like wood. I always wanted to be an iceworker. Loved ice from the time I can remember. But how do you leave a legacy in icework? Would the Smithsonian be interviewing me if I had gone into icework? Would you, Jean? So I went with wood. But my heart was never in it.” That I didn’t is a testament to my high moral character.
Transcribing Smithsonian interviews with Edgar Anderson, famous American woodworker: a job that I have had.
(Ed. note: I found this link, which leads me to believe there were only five hours of interviews. I can’t say for sure whether this is true, but my recollection is that there were many, even hundreds, of hours of tapes. Maybe the 5 hours mentioned here are the only ones that are available online? Further, the link says these interviews are “untranscribed,” and I can vouch that the ones I dealt with were painfully, painfully transcribed. Anyway, even if there are only five hours, it takes a long, long time to transcribe 5 hours.)