Transcribing Is Difficult Work

My supervisor sent me the task late last week: transcribing an oral history interview with volunteers of the National Park Service in New Bedford. It didn’t sound particularly difficult – while I’d never actually tried to transcribe a recording before, I considered myself a quick typist and had often had to transcribe my grandfather’s stories into concise Word documents. So, I figured it couldn’t be too difficult of a job.

The program that was suggested to me, Express Scribe, is definitely a bit more complicated than what I was expecting. I tinkered around with some of the various icons and menus, trying to see what the program could do. (To be honest, I’m still not sure what they all do.) Finally, I loaded the MP3 and started playing it.

You don’t realize how quickly people speak until you have to type every word they are saying. After ten seconds of trying to catch up at a speed of 100%, I started adjusting the scale until I could find a speed at which I felt comfortable – in my case, 43%. The slow pace didn’t quite register in my mind until I had spent a good chunk of time transcribing only to realize it had only been five minutes in the course of the MP3. While it was a minor blow to my ego, it did make me feel that I was taking the time to ensure quality of the transcription.

One difficulty with the program was activating the “hotkeys” – rather than using my mouse to start/stop the playback, one can use they keyboard (which is helpful when mid-transcription.) I had to contact my supervisor on how to actually activate the keys, but once I did, they came as a solution to another problem – people talking over each other.  I often had to review a segment four or five times to make sure I had heard everyone’s parts correctly. This was especially difficult in the beginning of the interview – while I recognized my supervisor’s voice, I sometimes got confused on which of the two interviewees was speaking. As the piece went on, I was able to distinguish their voices more clearly – though they still talked over each other a lot.

At the moment, I’m just before the halfway point in the 83-minute interview, so I still have my work ahead of me in that regard. However, what was really interesting about this experience was being able to hear how open and descriptive the two volunteers were in the interview. Though I don’t have any personal experience with oral history interviews, I’ve heard some horror stories – difficult to get in touch with people, people who were reserved, controversial responses, no response, etc. This one, however, seemed to go quite well. It was unscripted, directed by the stories and anecdotes that came out in conversation rather than the few, distinct questions presented. My supervisor asked very few, clear-cut questions – mostly clarifications on a name or a date – and instead asked broad, open-ended ones that allowed the conversations to take several different directions. It’s definitely something to keep in mind.

As for the actual topic of the interview, I was amazed by the amount of effort and determination the two volunteers put into their independent research project for their program and for their personal understanding of the ethnic communities of New Bedford and the whaling industry. However, since that’s an entirely different topic, I’ll save it for when I actually finish transcribing the interview. 

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