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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Why Does My Transcript Look So Awkward? How I Transcribe Oral Histories

Oral history transcript
The first page of one of my oral history interview transcripts

Oral histories are important primary source documents to help preserve the history of organic farming. But they’re long and most researchers, like me, will never have time to listen to the full recordings of all these interviews. Instead, they prefer to read a transcript. So I take the time—at least two hours per hour of recording—to transcribe every single oral history interview I record.

I don’t use AI software for transcription, because it makes so many mistakes that it would take me almost as long to fix it as it would to do it myself from scratch. I use Express Scribe playback software and a foot pedal to play and pause the recordings. While I’m listening to the recordings, I type every word manually into a Word document.

Fortunately, I’m a pretty fast typist, so it only takes me 2-3 hours per hour of interview recording to type up the transcripts. That compares pretty favorably with the time it would take a professional transcriptionist to do the job. And since I am familiar with the specialist terminology used by my narrators, my transcripts might be even more accurate than one typed up by a transcriptionist who is unfamiliar with organic agriculture.

But sometimes oral history narrators are disappointed when they first see the transcript of their interview. It may look awkward, clumsy, and disjointed, and they fear that they are a bad speaker and didn’t communicate well. But that’s not the case at all. It’s just that spoken words look a little odd when they are transcribed verbatim. Oral speech is different than written communication. Everyone—including myself—uses different sentence structures and phrases when we speak than when we write. Even dialogue in novels is not written down verbatim exactly like people really talk. And that’s why even the best speech in the world to listen to may sound somewhat awkward when it’s transcribed into written words. An oral history transcript is never going to read like a book.

Despite its awkwardness, though, a verbatim transcript is a very important document for historians. It’s the only place where the narrator’s views and stories are recorded exactly as they told them. That’s what makes an oral historian different from a journalist. A journalist may ask similar questions and maybe even make an audio recording, but they’ll only quote snippets of what the person actually said. And they may slant the article in a way that does not reflect the interviewee’s actual viewpoint, or makes fun of them, or leaves out important information.

Someday I will use these oral histories as source material for a book. I can tell you already that the book will not agree 100 percent with any single person I have interviewed. The reason is simple—they don’t all agree with each other. Even if I had no personal viewpoints, I could never put all these stories together in a way that would look exactly like every single narrator would want. I see this diversity of perspectives as a positive thing and will try to fairly present all of them. But they will still be filtered through my perspective in the final book. That’s unavoidable.

And that’s why I am doing the oral histories. This is your chance to tell your story in your own words and know that it will preserved, exactly as you said it, for posterity. The oral histories will still be available after the book is published, so anyone who wants to see the unedited version of what the narrators said will be able to. Since I could never take the time to write a separate book about each person, this is the best way to preserve all of your stories for future generations.

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