Understanding Transcription

Scholar Henry Glassie describes an interviewee’s dictation of oral history as a process by which truth is constructed through recall and discovered:

“When [the interviewees] string facts into narratives, they will create something other than the factual past, if only by dint of omission, and the dynamics of presentation, but they do not do so to fool people but to help them by driving at a larger truth than that trapped in the factual scraps … their joy is finding, holding, manipulating truth” (Abrams 47).

Communicating these intricacies of oral histories through transcription, he argues, proves particularly challenging. Oral historian Raphael Samuels warns that the process of transcribing inevitability involves a certain degree of distortion; scholar Linda Shopes agrees, arguing that transcribing processes are inherently limited due to the restricting nature of language. Therefore, oral history practitioners must minimize the “mutilation” of an interviewee’s life story as spoken words are transferred to the printed page.

Above all else, existing literature stresses the importance for transcriptions to reflect the authenticity and originality of the speaker. Any departures threaten to “vandalize” the original oral account.

The best practices outlined below seek to ensure the originality of the speaker through transcripts.

  • The transcription must be a detailed, word-by-word rendering of the oral testimony with minimal editorial intervention.
  • The transcription must be cross-checked, which is typically done by the interviewer who makes edits where she deems necessary. It is advisable that other researchers engage in the process to check for accuracy and add corrections if necessary.
  • Annotations should be added to increase contextual understanding.
  • Verbal tics, repeated words, unfinished sentences, incomplete phrases, stuttering, gestures, tones, mispronunciations, dialects, cadence, etc. should be maintained in transcriptions to adhere to the interviewee’s authenticity.
  • Expressions, paralinguistic cues to meaning, and the interpersonal dynamic that occurs when two people talk face-to-face should be recorded in the transcript.

Ultimately, Samuel warns, “Unless recordings can be preserved in their original integrity, and made freely available for other researchers to consult, they will remain locked forever in the preoccupation of the collector, immune to criticism, and incapable serving as a base for continuity enquiry” (Abrams 22).

For more information — including examples and references — please refer to “Archiving, Transcription Process” on the shared Basecamp project.

What does ‘oral history’ mean for our project?

As articulated in Lynn Abrams’s Oral History Theory, oral history is a creative, methodological tool of research that involves analyzing “not just what is said, but also how it is said, why it is said and what it means” (1). As a three-way conversation between the interviewee, researcher, and the culture introduced by their shared intersubjectivity, the practice of oral history refers to information and stories shared, in addition to the larger meanings created by interviewees through reconstructions of experience.

While I was reading Abrams’s book, I noticed that the Literature & Professional
Life project is unique from traditional oral history frameworks. While the archive project absolutely relies on reconstructions and reflections of the past, our research is deeply invested in the present. The project primarily seeks to understand the “prism of the present” (Abrams 7) as a product of past experiences and encounters with English. It is this exciting departure from most oral histories that I will explore further by reviewing Digital Oral History and Charlton et al.’s Handbook of Oral History.

Abrams, Lynn. Oral History Theory. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.