The transcription bottleneck is often cited as a major obstacle for efforts to document the world’s endangered languages and supply them with language technologies. One solution is to extend methods from automatic speech recognition and machine translation, and recruit linguists to provide narrow phonetic transcriptions and sentence-aligned translations. However, I believe that these approaches are not a good fit with the available data and skills, or with long-established practices that are essentially word based. In seeking a more effective approach, I consider a century of transcription practice and a wide range of computational approaches, before proposing a computational model based on spoken term detection which I call “sparse transcription.” This represents a shift away from current assumptions that we transcribe phones, transcribe fully, and transcribe first. Instead, sparse transcription combines the older practice of word-level transcription with interpretive, iterative, and interactive processes which are amenable to wider participation and which open the way to new methods for processing oral languages.