They don't type in all the letters like on a normal keyboard, but work with phonetics. So instead of 13 strokes on a Qwerty keyboard, the word "unfortunately" needs only four strokes on a steno machine (un, forch, n-t, lee).
In the past, stenographers had to transcribe their paper notes at the end of the day. Now, computer-aided transcription software instantly matches steno strokes against a lexicon of English words.
Stenographers mainly do court reporting. They are hired by lawyers who want a verbatim (word for word) record of what is said. But a stenographer is an officer of the court. His record is verbatim and impartial.
Their skills are also applied to produce live television captions and realtime transcription to help deaf people during festivals and lectures.
Young Post interviews stenographer Jade King to understand what this little-known career entails.
You need to have a love of words and of the English language. In Hong Kong, the most important court hearings - the ones requiring a stenographer's help - are in English. It doesn't have to be your mother tongue, but the ability to understand complex material accurately is one of the most critical skills needed.
Manual dexterity is important. Playing the piano is very good training and an aptitude indicator. King had classical piano lessons from the age of four to 20.
You must be well read, with good general knowledge to understand all that's said in court. Legal terms can be learned on the job. To do live captioning, keep up with the news.
Stenographers work under high pressure.
King describes the process: "Take in and deconstruct a sentence into phonetics, remember to differentiate for homonyms, identify compound words and inflected endings, then structure it so it's grammatically correct, and get your fingers to stroke it (1) accurately, (2) at high speed and (3) almost without thinking about it, so you have room in your brain to begin the whole process again for the next thing you've heard."
King taught herself with a manual - six months to learn the theory and three years to build up speed. Training courses are available, mostly in the US, but also in Canada, Britain and Australia. A speed of 250 words per minute qualifies you as an accredited realtime reporter. Hong Kong offers no official certification, so get yourself qualified in another jurisdiction or prove your skills with an employer.
A speed of 150 words per minute will suffice for delayed transcription or television work. A full-time trainee can earn more than HK$35,000 a month. Reliable senior court reporters can easily double that revenue. The earnings depend on the length of a hearing and the services provided. There aren't many stenographers in Asia-Pacific, so consistent demand is likely.
King started as an editor, following what the stenographer had just input and fixing mistakes. It is a good way to get an insight into the job. With TV captioning, be ready to show up any time, anywhere to respond to breaking news. Experienced stenographers are usually fully booked and highly paid.
King is now hired by Merrill Legal Solutions. Over the years, she has worked on exciting events such as the Olympics, US presidential election and Asian Film Awards.
Where to apply
You can set up a company and offer your services to lawyers. The start-up costs include audio equipment, computers and a steno machine, which can cost over HK$35,000, as can the software. Another way is to work for a firm, such as Merrill.
A day at work
Before beginning a new case, Jade King (left) receives books and documents from the court. She reads them to become familiar with the case, identify names and any unfamiliar words.
On the day the case begins, King arrives one hour early to set up her equipment. She finds out who is who and who sits where. As soon as court starts, King is totally focused on hearing what is said and inputting it on her machine. At the end of the session, usually about 5pm, she has to edit the final transcript and hand it in.
King loves her job because every case is different and she has an important role: keeping the record. If someone wants to appeal, it will be based on her transcript. She also enjoys her job for the linguistics. She regularly learns new words and keeps up with current affairs.
But she has to be careful not to overstrain her hands, working as she does at 10,000 strokes an hour.