Transcription and oral history

This is Part 1 of an ongoing series of blog posts about transcription and oral history.

Oral history, at its very core, is about the practice of interviewing, recording and analysing; a research methodology, and a research output.i Added to this in the digital era, many would suggest that the act of archiving is also a fundamental part of the task of the oral historian:

Digital technology has eliminated the distinction between the creation of oral history and the preservation and management of it. Information systems must now be at the heart of the oral history enterprise…”ii

Part of the archival process that has received significant discussion is transcription, the process of converting the aural recording into text.

Black and white word cloud created by inputting notes on transcription into http://wordle.net
Word cloud created by inputting notes on transcription into http://wordle.net

While much European oral history practice emerged from folklore, thus recognising the aural importance of oral history practice, in the United States interview content and documentation were emphasised during the development of the discipline and the practices of the Columbia Oral History Research Office (opened in 1948) were widely copied. Their fieldwork methods involved recording interviews, transcribing the recordings and then providing a transcription for the interviewee to approve and/or correct. The pre-eminence of the transcript as the document of record was widely accepted to the extent that the recordings of interviews were not stored; instead the tapes were re-used, and new interviews were recorded over old ones once a transcript was made, saving on material costs and storage. When questioned on this practice in 1962, the then director said that only one out of hundreds of people who had consulted the archive ever asked to listen to the original tape. All the other researchers had been happy to deal with transcripts and paper.iii

This attitude has gradually changed, and since the 1980s there has been a heavy emphasis on the oral nature of oral history. The recorded interview has therefore become the primary document of the discipline. Reasons for this centre on the difficulty of capturing the essence of spoken communication in a written format. It is difficult to accurately recreate all the nuances of a spoken conversation in writing; conversation and text are fundamentally different forms of communication. These difficulties have been the focus of much oral historical methodological consideration and there is a rich and varied literature on transcription.iv

Issues that arise in this literature include the distortion that arises when converting from speech to text,v that, in order to make the transcript readable, punctuation is inserted,vi and that, gradually, the transcriber is editing out the original speech and creating something new.vii The issue of whether to faithfully and exactly re-create the words, pauses, unfinished sentences, the ums and aws of every person’s speech, is also discussed in detail. Some advocate resisting the urge to tidy up the transcript arguing that oral history:

is what comes out of people’s mouths, and it has to be captured accurately on paper; or else you violate the integrity of the interviewee, who has been kind enough to give you his or her time, and you violate the integrity of the medium.viii

Yow voices a preference for minimal change, arguing that, by presenting the transcript, the “editor is saying to the reader; here are the words of this narrator. But they are not the narrator’s words if the editor has changed them.”ix

The flip-side to this approach is the fact that interviewees, when asked to approve the transcript, are often shocked with the apparent incoherence of their speech; they are accustomed to reading text, and even dialogue, as smooth, flowing narratives, and therefore expect the transcript of their own interview to follow a similar pattern. This is because the “normative conventions of writing are pervasive, even among people whose dialect differs markedly from those conventions”.x Yow quotes a letter from an interviewee who, on receiving a copy of the transcript of her/his interview, wrote to say that it portrayed her/him as “bumbling, illiterate”.xi These reactions have brought about a gradual change in practices and, because of a wish to respect contributors, many practitioners now render their transcripts in a manner more suitable to the conventions of written texts. For example, transcription of dialect that follows exact words pronunciation through phonetic spelling emphasises the difference or otherness of the oral text, particularly within the formalised conventions of writing associated with scholarship or archives.xii Paradoxically, the exact renditions of dialect and speech were initially promoted in order to respect the authentic voice of the contributors, but this practice is now often set aside, since it has been interpreted as an act of caricature, and disrespect. Presenting speech in a manner that diverges from the pervasive norm politicises the act of transcription.

As the discipline of oral history has evolved, most transcribers have eschewed renderings of the phonetic aspects of dialect in transcripts, while leaving intact the morphological, syntactical, and lexical variations that also distinguish most dialects. The extent to which this renders the transcription unreliable as a historical document is a matter still debated.”xiii

 

Update (18 November 2014): Part 2 in this series of blog posts about oral history and transcription considers the role of TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) in oral history transcription (see Considering TEI and oral history transcripts). Part 3 tackles Alternatives to transcription for the oral historian?

 

Notes

i Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge. See page 2.

ii Charlton, T. L., Myers, L. E., Lanham, R. S., MacKay, N., Walnut Creek, C. A., & Matters, M. (2011). Archive Practice for Oral History Materials: Pre-Digital Overviews. Retrieved from http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/79807.pdf

iii Ritchie, D. A. (2011). Introduction: the evolution of oral history. In D. A. Ritchie (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Oral History (pp. 3–36). Oxford: Open University Press.See page 7.

iv Frisch, M. (1990). A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. SUNY Press.See page 81.

v Samuel, R. (1998). Perils of the transcript. In R. Perks & A. Thomson (Eds.), The Oral History Reader. London and New York. See page 389.

vi Portelli, A. (1998). What makes oral history different. In R. Perks & A. Thomson (Eds.), The Oral History Reader. London and New York: Routledge. See page 65.

vii Dunaway, D. (1984). Transcription: shadow or reality? Oral History Review, 12, 113–117.See page 116.

viii Allen, S. E. (1982). Resisting the editorial ego: Editing oral history. Oral History Review, 10>(1), 33–45. See page 35.

ix Yow, V. R. (1994). Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists. Thousand Oaks, London, New Dehli: SAGE. See page 238.

x Mazé, E. (2007). The uneasy page: transcribing and editing oral history. In L. R. Ballard (Ed.), History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology (pp. 227–262). Plymouth: AltaMira Press. See page 242.

xi Yow, V. R. (1994). Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists. Thousand Oaks, London, New Dehli: SAGE. See page 235.

xii Mazé, E. (2007). The uneasy page: transcribing and editing oral history. In L. R. Ballard (Ed.), History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology (pp. 227–262). Plymouth: AltaMira Press. See page 242.

xiii Mazé, E. (2007). The uneasy page: transcribing and editing oral history. In L. R. Ballard (Ed.), History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology (pp. 227–262). Plymouth: AltaMira Press. See page 242.

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