Matt St. John is a writer and author living in San Francisco. His works have appeared in publications like Vice, El Pais, the East Bay Express, and more.

A Rose For a Journalist (Or How I Wish I Took More Spanish in High School)

A Rose For a Journalist (Or How I Wish I Took More Spanish in High School)

Illustration by Matt St. John

Illustration by Matt St. John

My girlfriend speaks very good Spanish, a skill that has very few downsides. Besides it being a trusty survival tool - for those that don't know me, we live in Madrid, Spain - speaking Spanish enriches her life in many other ways. She can speak to 427 million more people than those who only speak english. She can watch Almodovar movies without the subtitles or read Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

There is only one downside that I can see: her boyfriend is a non Spanish-speaking freelance journalist.

If we were living in the United States, this would not be a problem. I could interview most anybody with professionalism, extract pertinent truths and subtle insights, all the while juggling the article's fragile narrative.

In Spain however, I'm like a baby with a tape recorder.

Still, I've found my way around the pacifier, mostly by looking for sources that speak English. Sometimes, however, a source is just too good to pass up, even if they don’t speak the same language as you do.

Just such a scenario happened recently. I had been working on a story for almost seven months, and after a few shots in the dark, I was able to get in contact with a very good source.
There were two caveats to this good news: one, he wanted to conduct the interview in Spanish. Two, he lived in the ancient port city of Cadiz, about a four and a half hour train ride from my home in Spain's capital.

If interviewing someone in Spanish is difficult, doing it over the phone is Mt. Everest. 
Which is why I was standing over my girlfriend on a Sunday morning. She was wrapped from her head to toes in white sheets, so calm and innocent, only her face exposed like a nun. 

I, of course, was trying to bribe that saintly figure with coffee and bylines.

She sleepily conducted the Skype interview like a seasoned perodista, me hovering over her helplessly like a medical intern observing a surgery.  If I thought I understood Spanish ok before the interview, the rapid-fire monologue squawking out of my laptop speakers made me think different.

When the interview was over, we both breathed a sigh of relief. 

But as anyone who has conducted an interview before knows, we weren't out of the woods yet: the recording still needed to be transcribed. However, when we played the interview back, the flurry of words that spilled out was too fast for her comprehend. 

We spent almost an hour trying to slow it down to an audible speed. We tried Garage Band, and QuickTime; no luck. As a last ditch effort, I put the recording into Traktor, a DJ program for filling dance floors, not editing a journalistic conversation.

Amazingly, it worked! Sometimes the wrong tool is just the fix you need.

It wasn't without its quirks though. 

While slowing it down made the source’s words mostly comprehendible, it also had an unintended side-effect: dropping the pitch of his voice like a lean fueled, Texas hip-hop track.

That and every-time she missed a line —  even with the slower speed, this happened often —  and we had to rewind the track, a digital, vinyl scratch would screech, as if Dj Khaled were on the beat.

Sounds cool when you are remixing a Drake song — not so cool for our purposes. The fact that she went through that cacophony for me was pretty touching.

Some want their partners to make dinner for them, and some want flowers. Others want to be serenaded by guitar and to be taken on extravagant, tropical get-aways.

But you know you are a journalist when you are romanced by an interview transcription. 


If you liked what you read, check out my last post about finding a Piso in Madrid!

New Article for Vice!

New Article for Vice!

Piso Hunting in Madrid.

Piso Hunting in Madrid.