Transcribing…in all its glory

I have transcribed before when I worked for my high school newspaper, but it was just quotations that were a few lines at most. Tone and retaining the voice of the narrator didn’t matter as much as recording the words that came out of his or her mouth. Not surprisingly, transcribing an oral history is much different.  It took about two hours over two days with an extra day for checking my work and making brief changes, which is not bad. However, I’m not excited for transcribing my real interviews, especially since I’m starting to learn that my love of asking questions is going to make them quite long!

The hardest part of the transcribing was anything requiring a judgement call. I was not sure where is was necessary to put “ums” and “uhs”, especially since Paula used them a lot. It was also difficult to transcribe some of Mr. Beck’s thoughts since he had a tendency to start a sentence, pause, and then start it over again, or repeat words as he tried to gather his thoughts. It was a learning experience though, because I never realized how many run-on sentences and “ums” people put into their speech. It made me start listening to and analyzing my own speech and realizing that I am the same way. In the end though, I put “ums” in for Paula because I felt it was important to show her nerves for some reason. I included Mr. Beck’s “ums” only when it seemed like he was struggling to think of something (like Fredericksburg, for example). I included some of both his and Paula’s sentences restarts and repeated words and used ellipses to mark where they started a sentence over since that was the only technique that made sense in my head. I also used ellipses to mark small pauses and where the person trailed off. I’m going to have to come up with some new techniques, but hopefully my readers can understand them for this particular transcription.

For names that I did not know (there were three of them), I googled them first and then bolded them in the transcript. I’m pretty sure all my name spellings are correct, but the bolding will show the reader that I’m not completely sure they were correct since I did not have the opportunity to ask Mr. Beck to clarify. I added a few bracketed words of my own to make the sentences grammatically correct. I marked anything that I could not make out as [indistinguishable] and with any overlap, I put the first person’s full comment first and then the second person’s full comment. I consider myself fortunate to have only two people really talking on my part of tape, especially after reading transcription reviews of people in the past class who have had to deal with six people talking over each other.

My biggest problem with transcribing an oral conversation was retaining any aspects of tone. I feel like it’s impossible to show on the transcribe where Mr. Beck emphasized certain words or where his voice got softer. It also made it harder to punctuate sentences since I want to try and preserve these meanings as much as I can. You also really can’t show any trace of his Boston accent without really making a parody out of what he says. I tried to put things like “gonna” since that would be understandable, but any of the nuances were too difficult to be recorded. After thinking about this idea, I’m starting to really value what Portelli said about how important the spoken word really is. Writing words down eliminates the real meaning behind what was said. It seems like the human behind the speech is gone and was replaced by a machine typing words. I  definitely suggest that, if possible, future researchers both listen to the recording and read the transcript so they can see the words and hear all the emphases, accents, and emotion behind the words that I can’t make evident on the page.

With the indexing, I think that I had an unfair advantage, because I made the stupid mistake of not fully reading the assignment sheet before starting. As a result, I did the transcription before the indexing. When doing the index, I felt like I didn’t have to listen to the interview fully, because the second he started talking about a topic, I thought, “I know what’s coming. He’s going to talk about hitchhiking to Boston” or whatever. This process is completely different from the experiences in class, because there, I actually had to listen to the interview and make a judgement call about what was important enough to write down, instead of already knowing.

I could tell this interview was Paula’s first, because she sounded nervous and like she did not know exactly how to ask her questions. There were a few instances where she jumped on Mr. Beck with another question after he finished a story and didn’t appreciate the silence or the chance to let him follow up with whatever he was saying. There were also points where the silence seemed awkward and it was evident that Paula was trying to figure out what to ask next. Other than that, she was very understandable and asked interesting questions that she connected to each other relatively well. Hopefully, further experience helped her not be so nervous!

1 Response to “Transcribing…in all its glory”


  1. 1 dcpratt March 7, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Great, thorough reflection! I agree with you about including Paula’s “ums”–I think they help convey the dynamic of the conversation. Your decision to add bracketed words to sentences that would otherwise be grammatically incomplete caught my attention. Were these words necessary in order to make the sentences intelligible? What other effects, if any, do these added words have on the transcript?

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The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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