On Transcription: The approach behind IDCL’s Oral History transcripts

Seated Scribe, Steven Zucker, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Inspired by the Institute of Diversity and Civic Life (IDCL)’s work, Eleonora Anedda explores IDCL’s approach to its oral history transcripts, and how their method presents a way to navigate the challenges of preserving the relationship between the narrator and the transcript.

Transcribing is an art and a slow process. One might think that a transcript is merely a literal reproduction of a person’s speech; however, a transcript is a representation of narrative. And representations are always produced through interpretations. Two people transcribing the same recording will most definitely produce two different documents. At IDCL, we believe transcribing to be a valuable “interpretative work,” and because we recognise their worth, we invest time and energy into the creation of transcripts. Firstly, we do so for accessibility purposes, as the transcript facilitates access to the interview content. Also, to produce an online archive that best meets the needs of researchers, we create transcripts to make our collection searchable and digestible.

First and foremost, we see our transcripts as the embodiment of the commitment we made with our narrators who have so generously shared their memories and allowed us to record their words. Reflecting on how they talk, how fast they speak, and the ways they remember, we create transcripts that are easy to read; and we want them to be as faithful as possible to the narrator’s orality and speed of speech. Furthermore, we understand that one might be reading the transcript without following through with the recording, it is for this reason that we mindfully produce understandable transcripts independently of whether the reader is listening to the audio or not. Lastly, when transcribing we do not fact-check or correct any historical inaccuracies the narrator might make. This is because oral history is not about facts, chronology or dates, but rather first-hand experiences and feelings regarding certain historical events. Oral history intervenes into a historiography often shaped by the perspectives of privileged groups and makes space for voices that might otherwise be left out of the historical record.

In 2018 the Columbia University Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) released an updated version of their transcription guide. We adhere to CCOHR for most small issues of textual formatting, capitalization, style, et cetera — to be precise everything in p. 4–6 and 10–30. The most relevant instruction we take from CCOHR is that what the narrator intended to say is the number one priority. However, CCOHR ranks orality — which, for our purposes, can be defined as the exact words the narrator used — as a second, less important priority. And this is where we differ. We do not clean the transcript to remove all traces of the messiness of speech, only if keeping them in does not prevent clarity or distract from understanding the intent of the narrator’s communication. Ultimately though, we try to make our narrators sound good. We edit when something is so unclear that what that narrator means to say is not quite understandable, and we remedy with as little alteration as possible. In other words, we always opt for the least editorial choice.

Transcribing “forces us to take the time to listen to our interviews without rushing through the parts that we think are quotable.” We try to make the transcripts true to what the narrator was intending to communicate without sacrificing the “sound” of the spoken word. IDCL values “slow, thoughtful, and engaged listening.” We hope that transpires from our transcripts and other carefully crafted interpretative tools available in our digital collections.

[1] Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, ‘Slowing Down to Listen in the Digital Age: How New Technology Is Changing Oral History Practice’, Oral History Review 44, no. 1 (2017): 96, 101.

[2] On the form and meaning of oral history, particularly the relationship between memory and facts, consult Alessandro Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories.

[3] Orality is much more than just the exact words the narrator used: “The tone and volume range and the rhythm of popular speech carry implicit meaning and social connotations which are not reproducible in writing.” Alessandro Portelli. The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History. SUNY Series in Oral and Public History. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press, 1991, 47.

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