Slate's Explainer: Court Stenography Machines

Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains the operation of machines used by court reporters to create detailed transcripts of court testimony.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

One more mystery now, not quite on the scale of Deep Throat: What are those odd-looking machines court reporters use to make the official transcripts of a trial? How do they work? That's an Explainer question. Here with an Explainer answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS (Slate): The machine is called a stenotype, and it's also used for captioning television broadcasts and general office stenography. The stenotype works a bit like a portable word processor, but with a modified 22-button keyboard in place of the standard setup. Court stenographers can type entire words all at once by striking multiple keys at the same time. The left hand spells out the beginning of a syllable while the right hand spells out the end. All keys are pressed at the same time and the machine produces an alphabet soup that's incomprehensible to anyone who's not trained in machine shorthand.

Stenographers spell out syllables phonetically, but there aren't enough keys on each side of the keyboard to cover every sound. Certain combinations of adjacent keys correspond to the missing consonants. For example, there's no M anywhere on the keyboard, so you have to press P and H together to start a syllable with that sound. Each court reporter might use different conventions to represent homonyms or other ambiguous words. Any experienced stenographer will work out his or her own abbreviations, especially for words and phrases particular to a given job. `May it please the court,' for example, could be shortened to a quick stroke, as could `Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.'

In the old days, everything the stenographer typed would print on a roll of narrow paper tape. Later on, the stenographer would translate the notes back to English. Now the translation is done by computer, and the fancier stenotype machines translate as they go. Almost all stenographers have their own customized machines which they take with them on specific jobs. A brand-new top-of-the-line stenotype costs up to $4,500. In the last few years, more court reporters have begun to use less expensive Stenomask technologies. A verbatim reporter holds a tiny microphone up close to his mouth and repeats everything he hears behind a mask and device that silences the sound of his voice. Voice recognition software can translate the recording into printed text either after the fact or as the recording is being made.

CHADWICK: That Explainer from Slate's Andy Bowers; it was researched by Daniel Engber.

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