I spent most of the past week transcribing a series of oral history interviews which we conducted for a client. A transcript is supposed to be a verbatim record of what a person said, but is it really so?
What appears to be quite a mechanical process actually requires one to make quite a few judgement calls and even some research. First of all, one has to get use to the interviewee’s and his/her idiosyncratic way of speaking. That’s just one hurdle, after which one has to listen for the interviewee’s pauses (or lack of them) to decide where to place the full-stops, and the paragraph break and so on.
Then one also needs to decide what to keep and leave out of the transcript. I’m not talking about content words, but those umms, ahhs, you knows and false starts that are part and parcel of natural speech. If I leave in all the interjections, the transcript may be hard to read, but if I take out all, the transcript might sound stilted.
In any interview, the interviewee is bound to drop some names and places. Although the transcript is sent to the interviewee for checking, I try to make an effort to get the names right or close, or else the interviewee himself might not even recall what he was talking about in the interview.
So far I’ve transcribed about two hours of interview over a couple of days. It is a painstaking and laborious process full of stops and starts. I think though, I’m getting the hang of it. Transcription time has become meditative.
When I put on the earphones and start typing out the words I hear, I completely block out the rest of the world and my mind is focused on the task. I feel at peace and time seems to fly quickly. There is “flow”. And when I am done I have pages of work to show for my efforts. It seems like it’s not a bad job after all.