Adapted from the Utah State Historical Society “How to Conduct an Oral History” Booklet.
The reason for transcripts—are to record, to illuminate, to re-present, and to facilitate analysis. –Willow Roberts Powers, Transcription Techniques for the Spoken Word, 2.
- The transcribed interview is much easier for researchers to use than an audio tape. There is value to listening to a transcript, but researchers overwhelmingly prefer a transcript for ease and speed of use.
- A corrected transcript may be more accurate and complete because the recorded works were put down in writing while the narrator was still available to clear up obscurities. Words that are hard to hear can be checked by the actual speaker; questions that were inadequately answered can be expanded by written comments.
- You have something to show for your efforts. A permanent record. A monument to a life.
- It’s generally expected by the scholarly community.
The Time and Cost of Transcribing
Transcribing is hard, time-consuming work. Many people think it is also mechanical, neither challenging nor interesting. They are, ultimately, wrong. For those of us with an interest in human beings and language, the work of transcribing broadens our experience of speech, gives the analytical mind much more to play with than the text itself ever well, and strengthens our memory for the work that lies ahead….We talk a great deal; the opportunity to do nothing but listen is a rare treat. –Willow Roberts Powers, Transcription Techniques for the Spoken Word, 10.
You can expect to expend an average of six to twelve typing hours for each hour of recording. Then it will have to be edited, corrected, and final editing. The last quote I got for a transcription (2019) was $8 a transcribed page which is about $120 for an hour interview. This is something to plan for in your budget if you don’t plan doing the transcription yourself.
If you do plan to do the transcription yourself, you’ll need to budget your time. If you have good transcription software and a foot pedal, it will still take 3-6 minutes of transcription for audio, so you can anticipate 3 to six hours for an hour of audio. Donald Ritchie recommends every interviewer does at least one transcription to understand the importance of a good quality recording. This may also encourage you to avoid “uh-huh” and other interruptions during an interview.
The Verbatim Transcript? Or Acknowledged Edits?
Transcribing is not as straightforward as it might seem. Speaking and writing are different, and turning the spoken word into writing requires careful thought. Should you transcribe exactly what was said or a version that might be easier to read or understand? Which is more important, content or spoken form? Meaning or style? Broken sentences or intent? How should emotion appear in the written text? To what extent should characteristics of performance be included? Can we truly capture any of these things? Willow Roberts Powers, Transcription Techniques for the Spoken Word, 9)
You will need to determine, and note, how your transcription reflects the interview. Some transcriptions try to reflect the interview exactly, with breaks, overlaps, and all. Other interviews are edited for readability and clarity. If you do decide to clean up a transcript, make sure it’s noted at the beginning of the transcript that you have edited for clarity, false starts, etc. It can be good to get your interviewees’ preferences here, as speech written down is never as clear as writing, and some people will balk at exact transcripts if they don’t seem flattering.
Advice to the Transcriber
(Adapted from Willa K. Baum, Transcribing and Editing Oral History, 28–33)
- Listen to about 10 minutes before starting to type in order to catch the manner of speaking, special pronunciations, crutch words, etc. Listen ahead at least a phrase before typing. If the narrator is prone to many false starts, you will have to listen ahead more. If the narrator is fairly deliberate, you can type almost as the words are spoken.
- Type the words you hear, in the order they are spoken. Listen and type with understanding of what the speaker means, but be careful not to get rolling with the speaker so well that you are inadvertently putting words and phrases into her mouth. Even if the speaker may be awkward, forgetful, or nonverbal, resist the temptation to help out with your own superior vocabulary.
- Punctuate according to the sense of the words as spoken. Try to use only periods, commas, and long dashes (em dashes). Use sparingly colons and semi-colons. Avoid bold letters and exclamation points. Do not use ellipsis points (…) as they indicate something has been left out. Follow your project’s style sheet. A transcriber has to do the best he can to indicate how the words were spoken. No changing of word order is allowed.
- Listen for the end of a sentence; even if it isn’t a complete sentence, stop, and start a new sentence. Many narrators go on and on, using an “and” instead of a period. End those run-on sentences at reasonable points, but do not break down a complex clause into short sentences.
- Create a new paragraph when the subject changes.
- Unusual pronunciation and cropped word endings should not be indicated by phonetic spelling. It is almost impossible to convey pronunciation phonetically, and narrators are offended by a sprinkling of “yeahs,” “yups,” and “goin’s,” throughout the transcript even if they said it that way.
- Contractions should be typed as spoken. “I’ll look that up; I’m not sure what year it was” offends no one and is more natural than “I will look that up; I am not sure what year it was.”
- Crutch words. Almost everyone speaks with a plentitude of crutch words and gurgles such as “ah,” “well,” “and then,” “of course,” “you know,” “understand?” “right?” which serve the purpose of either a pause to think of the next thing to say, or a check as to whether the other person is listening. It is unlikely a narrator will approve and release a transcript full of crutch words; even if she does they will serve to impede the reader and to make the narrator look inadequate. Leave out most crutch words in transcribing if it is apparent that they are just pauses for thought. Leave in a few to show the narrator uses them, that this is an informal conversation. Leave them in if they have meaning.
- Interviewer’s approval words. Do not transcribe comments of the interviewer which are clearly only to indicate he is listening, such as “my, my,” “how interesting,” “really?” Like crutch words, they only serve to impede the reader and make the interviewer look like a scatterbrain.
- Do not transcribe false starts or unfinished sentences if the interviewee clearly reconsiders, stops, and then states it otherwise. Do transcribe if it is information she does not repeat in the revised sentence. In other words, get down all the information, but if she fumbles and then starts again, leave out the fumble.
- Portions you cannot hear. Listen again. Ask someone else in the office to listen. Don’t waste too much time trying to hear what you can’t. If you still can’t make it out, leave a blank about as long as you think the phrase is (don’t underscore) and pencil in lightly the counter number. The interviewer or editor may be able to hear it later. You can also use brackets to indicate [an inaudible word], a word or name you are not sure about or how they are spelled Bob [Siciliano?], or words you do not understand or are from a different language whose spelling and meaning you don’t know [gemutlichkeit–German]. These can be clarified for the final draft. Avoid using such words [garbled or nonsense] that may be offensive to the interviewee.
- Portions to be left out. The interviewer may indicate on the interview notes that certain portions are not to be typed, perhaps chit-chat, an irrelevant story, or a repetition of an already told tale. If one aims for an informal interview, it is better to leave the tape running during the interview and then not transcribe irrelevant portions than to call attention to the recorder by turning the tape on and off. Omissions may or may not be indicated, according to the interviewer’s request. Information such as “Interruption by take-off of an airplane” or “conversation about the hazards of living near an airport” may be fine, but omit information like the following: “Fourth telling of how she walked ten miles to school and never missed a day.”
- State directions, descriptions of what is happening, or how words are spoken. Use these with discretion and put them in parenthesis. Some are necessary to understand the action: “reading from newspaper,” “goes to bookcase to get scrapbook,” “interruption for telephone call,” “pause while fire engines go by.”
- Others are interpretations of the sound and must be used with care lest they offend the narrator. For example, “laughter” is fine if it follows a genuine joke, but may be offensive if it is in an inappropriate place or in fact represents a nervous giggle. The transcriber can try to indicate how the words were spoken—“softly,” “sadly,” “whispering”—and can underline words to indicate heavy emphasis, or put in ALL CAPS words that are spoken loudly for emphasis, but keep in mind the narrator’s feelings. Some indications of emotion are best limited to the tape where they can be evaluated in their full sound context.
- Proper names and places. Use the notes that come with the interview. The interviewer should have written down names and places, and checked the spelling with the narrator. If not in the notes, look up any names if you can in such reference works as the telephone directory, who’s who, almanac, atlas, and history books. If nowhere to be found, spell phonetically. The names that cannot be checked should be called to the attention of the narrator when she reviews the transcript.