Ella Mackay Singh worked with SWIHHP this summer on a fellowship through Queen’s. She did some fascinating thinking about what happens when we move words from speech to writing. Enjoy!
Over the past two and a half years, oral history interviews have been at the heart of the Swamp Ward and Inner Harbour History Project. Today, there are sixty-eight voices and counting. The audio recordings, their summaries, and a number of accompanying photographs are all to go to the Queen’s archives in the not-so-far-off future.
Though I sat in on several interviews over the summer, and conducted a handful myself, a significant part of my role involved composing their summaries. These summaries included partial transcriptions. I was surprised to find that transcription was difficult, not only in keeping up with the voice and typing quickly, but in figuring out how to appropriately capture all that was communicated.
We must listen in order to transcribe, but listening closely doesn’t always make transcription easier.
There’s a concern for accuracy — this is a research-based, ethical and academic endeavour — but loss is inevitable.
Sometimes, loss is okay. We don’t hear everything when we listen. We are selective, and do not get caught up on all the ums, ahs & you knows.
Consider two transcriptions of the same audio segment. The first textualizes every vocalization; the second cleans things up a bit.
“…um and Belle Park is not that. It is a little bit wild – as wild as urban space can get um. It’s untidy, around the edges you know so all of this is around the edges, um, but like, if you go north of the city into more wild areas, wild areas are untidy…”
“…and Belle Park is not that. It is a little bit wild – as wild as urban space can get. It’s untidy, around the edges, so all of this is around the edges. But if you go north of the city into more wild areas, wild areas are untidy…”
Which is more accurate? Sometimes literal transcriptions make people seem less articulate than they would be perceived to be in the moment. In “Blended Voices: Crafting a Narrative from Oral History Interviews,” Rebecca Jones notes that “some narrators may not be as protective of the verbatim speech as the researchers and writers may be” (33). She says “[t]hey may also understand editing to be part of the essential process of telling their story” (36).
However, oral histories do not just share what people say (their stories). They also share the way people speak (the expression and movement particular to their voices). And this has meaning too.
In Learning to Listen: Oral History as Poetry, Dennis Tedlock proposes
which are the more ORDINARY business of the oral historian
are THEMSELVES highly poetical
and cannot be properly understood from prose transcripts.” (712)
Tedlock suggests that when transcribing – when listening closely – we sometimes need a form with m o r e s p a c e .
I found that if we transcribe with ragged right hand margins we can take joy in repetition:
the priest would say to my parents
where’s your little delinquent
I really love the Catholic I love
I loved that I was raised Catholic
I love a lot of the like
I love the rituals they have I love the incense and the
the beautiful imagery but
(there’s a dark side
to it of course like everything but
so my parents finally stopped going
which was big
…the priest would say to my parents where’s your little delinquent. But um, I really love the Catholic I love I loved that I was raised Catholic I love a lot of the, like, I love the rituals they have I love the incense and the, the beautiful imagery but, there’s a dark side to it of course like everything but, so my parents finally stopped going, which was big…
And now listen: which transcription is better?
And we can reveal rhythm:
landed in 1951 in Montreal
as I say, my brother came to pick us up,
pick us up,
at Kingston station
pouring with rain it was pouring with rain
in the middle of the night you might say three-thirty
but when we got there they,
they made tea and we had toast–
we thought what a lovely toaster
we liked the toaster
and the toast
so that was when we said we’d have to get one.
I remember it was a Sunbeam.
Landed in 1951 in Montreal. As I say, my brother came to pick us up at Kingston Station. Pouring with rain, it was pouring with rain, in the middle of the night, you might say three-thirty. But when we got there, they, they made tea and we had toast. We thought was lovely toaster, we liked the toaster, and the toast, so that was when we said we’d have to get one. I remember it was a Sunbeam.
And now listen:
And we can recognize silence, allow for emotion:
we enjoyed the cottage while we had it
but then, my husband
when he died, I couldn’t keep a good look after a cottage and a house
and he died of prostate cancer, so he was only 58
and so o
I lived in the
house we built cottage uh bungalow we built
then I was
did most of the work I did cement work and
wood work and
I enjoyed working with, my hands
We enjoyed the cottage while we had it, but then, my husband, when he died, I couldn’t keep a good look after a cottage and a house. He died of prostate cancer, so he was only 58. And so I lived in the house we built, cottage, bungalow we built, and then I was left alone. Did most of the work. I did cement work and, wood work and, all sorts. Built cupboards. I enjoyed working with my hands.
Tedlock says that we
must stop treating oral narratives
as if [we] were reading prose
when in fact [we]are listening to dramatic poetry. (725)
But first and foremost, oral histories are human documents. Could Tedlock and I be getting too poetical? What if the story itself is more important to the speaker than the way they told it? What if they would prefer to be granted the authority of prose?
What if I’m hearing trees instead of the forest?
Transcribing toast instead of the train ride?
If we give ourselves s p a c e in transcription, we need to be attentive to the way we then occupy that space, and how that affects what the original speaker intended for their words.
—Ella Mackay Singh
Jones, Rebecca. “Blended Voices: Crafting a Narrative from Oral History Interviews.” The Oral History Review. 31.1 (2004): 23–42.
Tedlock, Dennis. “Learning to Listen: Oral History as Poetry.” boundary 2. 3.3 (Spring 1975): 707–728.