Category Archives: Interview transcription

Context is Key

Context is key

I think one of the main reasons I love proofreading transcripts is that it’s fun ferreting out and changing those odd little mistakes where the sentence someone’s typed makes perfect sense, but in context it’s nonsense. It’s a bit like doing a puzzle really.  Context is so often the key.

It never ceases to amaze me that people providing transcripts sometimes get it so wrong – but I won’t deny that I also make mistakes – that’s why proofreading back through is so important! An example of a mistake I proofread the other day was a colloquialism. Of course not everyone is familiar with all colloquialisms, but I was a bit surprised the transcriber didn’t highlight this one as a query. It went something like this*: ‘I like doing x, but then I like doing y too. X is fun but takes a long time. Y is a bit less fun but it’s quick. It’s swings and roundabouts really.’ The transcriber had put ‘swims and roundabouts’ which at least gave me a chuckle. There’s no excuse for it though – when someone is transcribing this and types ‘swims and roundabouts’ a ‘that’s odd’ flag should automatically start waving in their brain. Then all you have to do is look it up on dear ol’ Google. You immediately get, other than a few references to an Angry Birds theme park that will include ‘a mixture of themed swims and roundabouts…’, a notification saying ‘Did you mean swings and roundabouts?

Then there’s the homonyms of course, or strictly speaking homophones – where words sound identical but are actually spelt differently. The obvious suspects are things like ‘they’re’ and ‘their’, or ‘aloud’ and ‘allowed’, but to be honest I wouldn’t employ anyone who couldn’t manage those! It’s the subtle ones that do still crop up though:

  • ‘It was all together a fine kettle of fish’ is wrong. It should be ‘It was altogether a fine kettle of fish’, because ‘all together’ means various things in one place, but altogether means completely.
  • ‘I was going to brooch the subject’ is nonsense because brooch is a piece of jewellery. The word should be ‘broach’ which means to bring up for discussion.
  • ‘The road was tortuous’ or ‘the road was torturous’? Well, either could potentially make sense. The first one means the road was full of twists and turns and the second one means it was full of pain and suffering.

The only way to know what the third example above should be, if the word itself isn’t clear on the tape after a few listens, is to look at the context. If the speaker goes on to say, ‘I thought if the bends got any tighter it would be quite dangerous’ then suggestion one is a winner, but she says, ‘It was a journey I really didn’t want to make. I knew it was going to be painful before I started,’ then we’re looking at option two.

Another essential part of proofreading is research, generally internet-based, to check on people’s names, or locations mentioned in a transcript. Searching out an obscure village in Thailand, for instance, listening again and again to check, ‘Is that really what he said, or is it wishful thinking on my part, because it’s a name I’ve found?’ And then going back and seeing if he says anything else about the village to give me a clue… context again. Perhaps ‘It was near Chiang Mai’. Heck, the one I found is down in the south and Chiang Mai is up north – start again; but what a sense of achievement when you do track them down!

One has to be a little careful not to waste time though. Perhaps in the case above the interviewer knew exactly where the interviewee was talking about and could have filled in the blank in a second or two! So we always try to fill in the blanks, but if something uncertain then we’ll always flag it up for the interviewer to double-check.

Then there’s bits you can’t quite hear – either the person’s mumbling or the recording isn’t great, or the interview is recorded somewhere noisy and a train went past blowing its’ whistle.  I always like to make a stab at those, although I’ll always highlight them as only possibilities, rather than definite. An example cropped up today. Someone was talking about making a contribution to something, ‘but not very much and very tan-xxx-ly.’ I could hear the ‘tan’ and the ‘ly’ quite clearly but the whole word wasn’t quite clear. Context was key again – she’d only played a roll from the side-lines so the missing word was ‘tangentially’.

So if you’re a novice transcriber reading this, do take on board that context is absolutely vital in this kind of work – and if you’re a potential client, please be assured that all work from Penguin Transcription is transcribed by a small team of experienced and knowledgeable transcribers, and then carefully proofread – taking context into account!

* I can’t use real examples as all our work is treated as strictly confidential.

 

Transcription – offshoring, onshoring, in-housing, outsourcing?

Transcription might seem like an obvious thing to outsource and ‘offshore’. After all, ‘it’s only typing isn’t it? It’s not rocket science?’ And yet ‘onshoring’ has been in the news a lot lately, with both positive and negative slants. On the one hand, onshoring could boost the UK economy; on the other hand, the fact that it now ‘costs roughly the same’ to make noodles in China as it does in the UK, according to the recent news story about Symington’s Noodles bringing noodle production back from China to the UK, is an alarming indictment on the state of the UK economy. But it’s not just that companies feel they can now pay even lower wages to UK staff; it is also the rise an rise of wages in China, exchange rate fluctuations and shipping costs too.

So how does transcription fit into this discussion? Well, another recent argument for onshoring has been quality concerns. And this article about IT onshoring suggests a number of other important concerns too: “…time zone challenges, language and other communication issues, high turnover (up to 40% annually in some cases) in offshore locations, intellectual property and security risks (especially in unregulated countries like China), are just some of the unanticipated issues that have plagued offshore development.”

And a number of of those issues could also affect transcription – the obvious one is language. Unless English is a first language then there is no way that someone can provide top quality ‘general’ transcription i.e. interview transcription services and focus group or meeting transcription services. It is possible (though perhaps doubtful) that they can provide equal quality dictated notes, for example, but a conversation – full of idioms, homonyms, a wide variety of different technical terminologies – no.

So … if I’m suggesting you should keep your transcription ‘onshore’ then what about keeping it in-house? Surely keeping it as local as possible will minimise the problems? Well no, not necessarily. And this is where we come to the ‘just typing, not rocket science’ issue. It’s true – it’s not rocket science, but it does require specialist skills, and even if you’re lucky enough to have access to a secretary or PA who can type, that doesn’t mean they can provide fast, accurate, grammatically correct and readable transcripts from an audio file … and all that on top of their regular workload.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I am recommending onshoring and outsourcing, since this is the service that we offer here at Penguin Transcription,  but I think you will agree that the arguments are valid.

Valentines Day – it’s all about love, and we love transcription!

We all love transcription here – which is a bonus as it’s what we do for most of each working day, but it’s rather like dentistry or chiropody – although we love it, it puts a shudder up most people’s spines. Sally at www.wordnerd.co.uk described it as ‘trudging through treacle’, and she is certainly not alone.

So why do love it? I think the number one thing for all of us is variety – one day we could be typing children talking about a local film project and the next day (or the next hour) we could be transcribing blue-chip directors discussing their use of technology or top academics discussing the intricacies of animal parasites. OK, that last one doesn’t sound too appealing, I have to admit, but the point is every single project is different, and within the projects, every single interview is different. What’s not to love?

Well, there are a few things we don’t love – notably poor-quality recordings, badly moderated focus groups, people at meetings who eat and talk at the same time (not pleasant if you’re actually in the room, but way, way worse on a recording) and bits of hardware or software suddenly packing up for no reason.

But even taking all those things into account we all enjoy the opportunity to learn a little bit about so many different things. It’s guaranteed never to be boring. And of course we don’t spend all day transcribing – just most of it. Recently we had Rory the Penguin in for a photo-shoot for our upcoming newsletter. He enjoyed his visit and participated fully in the life of the office. If you want to see him answering the phone (no doubt a surprise to the person on the other end), loading the printer, and indeed having a go at transcribing, then sign up to our newsletter! Only six a year so you won’t be bombarded with unwanted information, and we aim to keep it light, informative and fun. And we’re planning a special competition later in the year to celebrate our tenth anniversary.   Don’t miss out – sign up today!

Language is Evolving – and the Transcriptionist has to evolve with it!

The way language evolves has become a fascination for me since I started transcribing. I started thinking about this again when @Wordnerdsally on Twitter brought my attention to the latest rebuttal, by  Académie Française, of an English word (hashtag), because it’s damaging French language purity. Will they actually stop the Frenchman (or woman, or child) on the street from using the word? I very much doubt it!

The fundamental problem with the whole idea of the Académie Française as a protector of the purity of the French language is that language is not, and never has been, ‘pure’. It changes over time because it’s living and it evolves; people speak it, younger generations love to twist and turn it and make it their own, waves of immigration bring in new words and change old ones, and language just keeps on changing.

A favourite evolution of a word for me, into something more negative than its original meaning, (pejoration, in linguistic terms, so I’m told) is ‘silly’. In Old English, ‘silly’ meant, of all things, blessed! If you were blessed, I suppose you were naturally thought to be innocent, so the word then started to mean innocent. By the time of Middle English (Chaucer’s era) that had evolved into ‘deserving compassion’. Not quite sure how the link worked there but I suppose if you were innocent of a crime and had been accused of it you would deserve compassion – maybe it evolved that way? Anyway, if you needed compassion, that must mean you were weak, right? Well no, probably not, but that seems to have been the thinking then, so ‘silly’ started to mean ‘weak’. ‘From there it was ‘a short step’, says linguist Professor John McWhorter, to it coming to mean ignorant, and from ignorant it evolved into ‘lacking in good sense’, which is one of its meanings today.

This is probably a very over-simplified description of the evolution of silly, not least because it doesn’t only mean ‘lacking in good sense’. It can also mean frivolous and it can be used to describe objects, not just people. However, it’s an indication of the complexity of language and the difficulties inherent in making sense of it! And making sense of language, as it is spoken, and translating that spoken language to something that makes sense on the page, is really what transcription is all about.

The evolution of silly took place over hundreds of years, but some words change much faster than that, especially in spoken English, rather than the more formal English usually found in writing. An obvious recent example is ‘wicked’. When I was a lass ‘wicked’ meant evil, and to some it still does, but most people would hesitate to use it that way because in the younger generations it has come to mean ‘cool’ which of course when I was a lass meant slightly chilly, and not hip (a joint of the body?), groovy (having lines engraved in it?) or just ‘in with the current style’ (from ‘Urban Dictionary‘).

So a good transcriptionist isn’t ‘only’ someone with a fantastic grasp of English spelling and grammar, but someone with their ‘finger on the pulse’ of current spoken English. Fortunately at Penguin Transcription our transcriptionists are not only experienced, but range considerably in age and background. When that the word ‘mardy’ came up in a transcript I was doing I had no idea the word even existed and kept trying to ‘hear’ another word that would make sense to me, but then a younger colleague listened to it and grasped it straight away. (For those who are just approaching ‘middle age’ like me, or older, it means grumpy, surly or miserable apparently!)

Getting the best from a recording for transcription

There are many transcription services available but sometimes an affordable transcription service can seem hard to find. Transcription is not cheap, because it is a lot more involved than copy typing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good deal with a transcription service, and what’s more, by providing good quality recordings you can make the transcription more affordable, as it will take less time to complete.

Here are a few things to consider:

Time Taken to Transcribe

When pricing up your options the most important thing to remember is that it’s just not possible to type as fast as you speak. Even an experienced transcriptionist will be able to average four times as long for a good, clear one-to-one interview – so an hour of recording will take an average of four hours to transcribe. (Industry standards obtained from the Industry Production Standards Guide, published by OBC, Columbus, OH, USA). But a poor quality recording will take much longer. So how can you make sure that your transcript is clear, in order to get an affordable transcription price? Basically, the easier you make the transcription for the transcriptionist, the more likely they are to be able to give you an affordable transcription quote.

Equipment

First of all, use the best transcription equipment you can afford, and make sure it’s right for your needs. This means that for interviews you should have a recorded with an external microphone rather than one built into the recorder, which is only designed to pick up dictation. For focus groups you should ideally have several microphones so that all participants are audible, and for conferences the speakers should have good microphones and there should also be people in the audience with ‘roving’ microphones to take around to any audience members wanting to ask a question.

Environment

Always try to make sure that you are recording in a quiet environment. Open windows can cause big problems unless you have a ‘noise cancelling’ microphone, which many digital ones are these days. So can air conditioning, so if you do have an air conditioning unit in the room try to ensure your speakers are not situated close to it. If conducting interviews by phone, and assuming that you have arranged these in advance (and asked permission to record, of course) then it’s helpful to ask your interviewee to try to make sure they’re in a quiet environment too!

Details

If you are interviewing and you want the names included then it is helpful to spell out your interviewee’s name at the beginning of the recording, before starting the interview, and speak out any information you would like on the transcript header e.g. the date, the job title of your interviewee etc. For conferences a speaker list and also a delegate list, if there will be audience questions, can save the transcriptionist a lot of time in trying to work out names and organisations.

Care with Conversation 

During the interview, unless you need to interrupt in order to take back control of the interview, try not to speak over your interviewee. Often in a normal conversation we say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ or ‘right’ or ‘OK’ more to indicate we’re listening than for any other reason. Every time you say that you are likely to be obscuring a much more important word or group of words spoken by your interviewee. And in conferences or panel discussions, if one speaker is giving a talk (i.e. without interruptions, not a discussion) make sure everyone else’s microphones are turned off. I have, in the past, had to mark whole sentences or even paragraphs of a talk as inaudible, because all I could hear were two panel members chatting about their holidays or little Jonny’s operation, and not the speaker!

Format

Most transcriptionists work in a standard format, whether that be tabular, tabbed, interviews shown as initials or full names etc. Again most are happy to work to your specifications, but the standard format might well be cheaper, so think carefully about whether you need something different or not. Find out what the standard format is in advance if it concerns you, and you may be able to adapt it to your needs.

Verbatim?

Finally, give some serious thought to whether or not you need a verbatim transcription. Verbatim transcription includes every repeated word, every ‘um’ and ‘erm’, all those ‘filler’ phrases like ‘you know’ and ‘know what I mean’ that may be repeated a hundred times in one interview, and can also include pauses, coughs, throat clearing etc. if required. Needless to say, this takes longer. If the transcriptionist can filter out all this stuff the transcript is quicker. In my company the cheapest level is what we call ‘intelligent verbatim’ which cuts out all these fillers but leaves the rest exactly as it’s spoken. Different transcriptionists work this differently though, so always check when you’re phoning for your quote. You can find detailed information about our editing levels on our website.

There are, of course, occasions when verbatim is required – depending on your topic it might be required for legal reasons, or you might be studying the language. But if you really don’t need it, don’t end up paying for it!

Price

And finally, remember that the cheapest transcription quote might not be the most affordable one in the end. There is an oft-quoted phrase: if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Will it really be cost-effective to send your hard-won interviews to the cheapest service if what comes back is gobbledygook and you have to go through the whole thing correcting every other word? How much time will you then waste that could have been spent more productively? Recommendation is always the ideal way to find a service, but if no one you know can recommend a transcription service then look for testimonials. A good company with a strong track record should always be able to provide these. If you’re still not sure, ask questions and base your decision on the quality of the answers. Things you might like to ask are: turnaround time (when will you get the transcripts), confidentiality procedures, whether they have experience in your field, what the standard format is etc.

First Penguin Transcription Client Satisfaction Survey

This is probably something I should have done a long time ago, but I’ve finally set up a client satisfaction survey, which all clients have the opportunity to fill in, and for which they receive a link when I send them their invoice.

So far the feedback has been incredibly positive. The first positive, for me, was that anyone bothered to fill it in at all, but we have had quite a good response rate. It’s only been running a couple of months but her are some of the highlights:

  • 80% of respondents used our website
  • 100% of respondents would use Penguin Transcription again
  • 100% of respondents were very satisfied with the readability of our transcripts
  • 90% were very satisfied and the other 10% satisfied with our transcript quality
  • 90% very satisfied and 10% satisfied with our ability to identify and correctly use technical words
  • 100% of respondents were very satisfied with our ability to distinguish different speakers in recordings with multiple speakers

One client mentioned that he needed to take the transcripts we sent and put them into a different layout with line numbering etc., so I will be contacting him to explain that this is something we can do for him, at no extra cost, to save him a bit of time. We can work with any Microsoft Word-based template that you provide, and can also work in Excel templates, but that will sometimes incur an extra cost as it’s a little more awkward and can take extra time.

Clients who respond are put into a quarterly draw to win an Amazon voucher, and the survey only takes five minutes or so, so no one need feel they can’t spare the time. If we’ve done some work for you in the last couple of months and you didn’t receive a survey request, just let us know and we’ll be happy to send one out to you (although I think and hope that everyone’s had one!)

Transcription for PhDs – don’t leave it too late

If you’re doing a PhD with qualitative research interviews, then it’s very likely that you’re going to need to transcribe them or have them transcribed. That might be something you know in the back of your mind, but perhaps you’re thinking you might as well get all the interviews conducted first and then worry about the pesky business of transcribing them.

Having worked in transcription for the past ten years, and also having done a PhD of my own, I can assure you that is not the best way to go about it! There are quite a few hoops you’ll need to jump through before you can get the transcription done, and the sooner you think about, the easier it will be.

Let’s tackle those hoops one by one – and if you have any thoughts on things I haven’t covered here, feel free to comment.

1. Ethics

If you’re doing qualitative research you’ve probably already discovered that ethics is  minefield! Your ethics committee may well tell you that, for purposes of confidentiality, you should transcribe all the interviews yourself. That’s fine if you’re a fast touch typist and you’ve got enough time built into your schedule to spend between four and seven times as long transcribing as the length of your interviews, but that might not be the case. Supposing you’ve conducted 20 one-hour interviews; transcription is going to take you at least 80 hours, or maybe more like 140 hours if you’re not expert (nearly 3 weeks of full-time work), which  could perhaps can be better spent doing something else… like analysis!

If the ethics policies allow you to outsource your transcription, they will probably have quite a number of provisos regarding data safety, and quite rightly too. You will need to make sure that your audio/video can be sent to your transcription service safely, so using an encrypted website, or sending by post on a passworded data stick for example. (All files sent to us via our website are encrypted.) You might also want your transcription files passworded on return, names of participants (and perhaps any personal names mentioned, or even place names) changed in the transcript, or blanked out, and perhaps return of the files through an encrypted website too, rather than email, to give an extra layer of protection.

The level of protection needed will depend, or we can hope that it will, on just how confidential the data is likely to be. So highly personal information, such as research into domestic violence, might require all of the above, whereas interviewing people about the culture of their business organisation might be rather less critical.

Here at Penguin Transcription we can assure you of complete confidentiality and are happy to discuss any ethics-related concerns with you. We have been working with researchers to provide transcription for ten years and have an excellent track record, as our testimonials show.

2. Type of transcription

It may seem obvious that if you’re taking the trouble to record all your interviews and get them transcribed, you want a ‘full verbatim transcription’ so that you don’t lose a single, precious word. However, unless you are working in counselling, psychology or linguistics, and actually studying the way speech is used, you are probably better off with what we call intelligent verbatim transcription.

Verbatim will include every single ‘um’, ‘er’, incomplete sentence, cough, laugh, sneeze and filler (such as ‘y’know, or know what I mean or kind of, often repeated many times in each sentence). As Phil Bayliss (2007) points out in his paper ‘Tinkering with Transcriptions’, downloadable from this page, not only is this type of transcript hard to read, but if you need to send it back to your interviewee for checking, they might find it downright embarrassing!

Intelligent verbatim transcription still includes exactly what’s said, including emotions such as laughter (although we’ll leave those out if you don’t want them), and (again, unless you’d rather not) we would type ‘I’m gonna get another one’ rather than ‘I’m going to get another one’ if that’s what’s said, but we leave out all the ums and ers and fillers and false starts and interruptions, making for a transcript that’s easier to read, easier to analyse, and not embarrassing for the interviewee.

Not only that, but it’s substantially faster to transcribe than a full verbatim text, and therefore also cheaper! So if you’re looking for affordable transcription services, consider intelligent verbatim.

3. The practicalities of recording for transcription 

There is a lot to think about, even at the recording stage, relating to transcribing your interviews later. There’s an article here about choosing the right recording equipment for your needs, and you will also need to give some thought to sound file types. We’re happy to discuss any of this with you, even before your project starts, at Penguin Transcription.

Then there’s the seemingly obvious stuff, such as don’t put the microphone too far from the people speaking, don’t stick a batch of papers on top of the recorder by mistake and try not to eat while talking as it will make you hard to understand! (I say ‘seemingly’ obvious because over the ten years I’ve been transcribing I’ve come across all these problems and more.)

Sometimes, for all sorts of reasons, recording in a noisy cafe, or a room with the TV on in the background, screaming kids or the washing machine going full tilt, is unavoidable. If that’s the case, so be it, but if you can avoid anything like this, it’s well worth doing, as the transcript that comes out at the other end of the process will be of much higher quality, with far fewer ‘inaudible’ markings etc.

4. Outsourcing transcription

As yet there is no transcription ‘magic bullet’ that allows you (or us) to feed your audio into a machine and get typed text out. Speech recognition is of no use in an interview or group context, as it needs to learn to recognise different voices.

It takes a fully trained and competent transcriptionist around four hours per hour of recording, depending on recording quality, so for an hour’s worth of transcription you need to pay for four hours of a transcriber’s time. Just something to bear in mind! And that time will increase for verbatim or if there are significant issues with the recording e.g. background noise.

Outsourcing transcription is not just about price, however; it’s about quality. At least it is if you don’t want to waste too much time going through and redoing it!  I won’t pretend – we’re not the cheapest out there. (We’re also not the most expensive!) The reason people keep on coming back to us is that we can provide the quality transcription they need. We have recently had two customers leave us because they found a cheaper alternative, and come back within a month because the cheaper alternative was not working out.

However, there are things that you can do to help us, and that will keep the costs down! Have a look at my article on finding an affordable transcription service, for some advice on this.

I hope this post has given you some food for thought, rather than cause for panic, and if you’d like to discuss any transcription requirements with us, please do give us a call on 01953 880206 or fill in our quote request form here.

Transcribing when a translator is present

We’ve just taken on a big project, bigger in fact than either we or our client realised at first, as he wasn’t sure how many hours of recording he had! All the files have the interviewer, the interviewee and a translator. We only have to transcribe the English – which is a good thing, as between us in the office we only have a handful of French and Spanish, and this is something a bit more exotic!

Should be easy, you’re probably thinking – after all, if the sound file is an hour long you’re probably only transcribing half an hour’s worth! So why, you might very reasonably ask, am I charging this client our standard rate, and not a reduced amount?

Well in fact I have offered a reduced rate if the recordings are really clear and the translator speaks excellent English – but we (my client and I) rather doubt there are any recordings like that! This is inevitable and I am in no way blaming the client, or indeed the translator! Of course in an ideal world, all recordings for transcription would take place in a quiet office space with the windows closed, no air conditioning on (because it can play havoc with the recorder!) and, where a translator is required, the translator speaking immaculate English with no accent, as well as speaking the tongue he’s translating from perfectly.

Unfortunately real life does rather tend to get in the way – and when you’re recording in rural China or in a war zone, or even an oral history at a little railway museum in the UK, all of which are projects we have worked on in the past, the chances of being able to find a nice, quiet office to work in are pretty small. The chances of finding a perfectly bilingual translator are even slighter!

So although we can, in theory, race through the non-English parts and just type the English, in this project the recording quality is quite poor, the translators’ English leaves much to be desired and many of the translators also have strong accents. Also, the nature of conversation between three people means that the discussions are not clearly and neatly divided into English and the other language. Often, while the translator is trying to do his bit in English, the interviewee thinks of something else he wanted to say and interrupts. Sometimes the translator is talking to the interviewee and then quickly throws a few words in English at the interviewer, before replying to the interviewee in the other language. So we really have to keep our ears ‘peeled’ and listen to everything, even though we can only understand half of it!

All these issues mean it’s taking about as long, or sometimes longer, to transcribe as a good quality, all English transcription, so it’s costing about the same. All I can say is it’s a good job that we all like a challenge at Penguin Transcription!

‘Hidden noise’ problems when recording for transcription

Sometimes background noise in a recording is unavoidable, but it should be pretty obvious that it’s going to affect the recording! Examples might be a recording in a train station with lots of announcements and train noise in the background, a very noisy cafe with other conversations going on around you (not to mention coffee machines) or in a room with a bunch of screaming kids. We’ve transcribed all these sorts of recordings – sometimes it’s frustrating but we accept that at times it’s just unavoidable. With noises like this though it comes as no surprise to the researcher when we say, ‘Background noise is a bit of a problem!’

However, there are quite a few ‘hidden’ noises that can also cause problems, and, unless you’re aware of the possibility of them being a problem, it’s likely that you won’t notice them until it’s too late. Some of these are avoidable if you are prepared in advance – but some will fall into the ‘just have to live with it’ category, as above! However, hopefully the ‘hidden noises’ below will provide you with a few extra things to look out for before starting your recording.

  1. Silent ring. A mobile phone, even if set to silent ring, can interfere with the recorder, so that for the period that it’s vibrating or silent ringing the recording is inaudible. If you need to have mobile phones set to silent, we suggest you place them as far as possible from the recorder/microphone.
  2. Taking notes. When you take notes, you will hardly hear the sound of your pen shuffling across the paper, but the recorder will, if you are writing next to it! We have had recordings sent in where the speech is actually inaudible because the interviewee is sitting a bit away from the recorder and the interviewer is sitting almost on it and busily scribbling notes! The simple solution is to make sure the recorder is closer to the interviewee and to make sure that, if you need to take notes, the pad is not very close to the recorder/microphone.
  3. Shuffling papers. Similar to above – if you have paperwork, or anything else for that matter, such as a handbag, right next to the recorder, then shuffling or rustling noises can sound very loud.
  4. Wobbly recorder. Not a common problem, but we have one client who always seems to have it – if the recorder isn’t lying flat and the table or whatever the recorder is sitting on wobbles a bit, the recorder will rock and the sound of it moving will be considerably louder than the sound of the people speaking!
  5. Air conditioning. Air conditioning, while not sounding especially loud in the room, can interfere with some recorders and make the recording useless. DO take a short sample recording if you’re in a room with air conditioning, while the air conditioning is running, and make sure it’s OK. If it isn’t and you can’t change rooms, open the window if possible! The sound of traffic/building works etc. outside isn’t ideal either, and may cause some inaudible sections, but that’s better than an unusable recording!

Why transcribe oral history recordings?

Collecting oral histories has become increasingly popular over the last few years, with the improvements in audio technology allowing good quality digital recordings to be made, that can be safely archived and easily backed up. Certainly listening to recordings of people reflecting on a specific area of their past, whether it be the way a town has changed over the years, reflections of a war or how their feelings about religion have altered during their lifetime, is a fascinating experience, and with the improvements in digital technology it is now possible to (relatively) easily edit recordings so that you can pick out particularly relevant or interesting sections for radio broadcast, museum exhibits etc.

So is there a need to get your oral history projects transcribed? Well the simple answer is yes, and here’s why:

Transcription can provide an excellent guide to your interviews and it’s fully searchable. That’s something that is just not possible with audio recording, so if you have twenty-five two-hour interviews about changes in the town centre, and you know that someone in one of them mentioned that statue put up after the war, how do you find it? A simple document search will provide the answer, provided your interviews are transcribed.

Not only that but a transcript can also provide the basis for plays, books and documentaries. Indeed, one of our current clients is planning to use his oral history recordings to produce a play, or perhaps, given the volume of material, a series of plays. I doubt it would be possible to write a play using oral history content by simply listening to archives – they will need to see and collate the written material.

Researchers will also need to analyse and collate written text in order to draw conclusions. Researchers using interviews and case studies will normally run their work through a qualitative data analysis package, such as NVivo, and again that requires written text to work with.

Although, as the Oral History Society points out on its web page, ‘full verbatim transcription of recordings is hugely time-consuming and expensive, and can require special equipment,’ they appreciate that it can provide an excellent guide to your interviews. Of course, if you use a transcription company geared up to produce transcripts from recordings, this will save a lot of time, although I’m afraid you will need to pay us! And here’s an important point to consider: do you really need a ‘full verbatim transcription’?

When we at Penguin Transcription Services talk about ‘verbatim’ we understand it to include every word, including repeated words, every cough, every non-verbal interaction (e.g. hmmm, er, um, ur), repeated failures to start a sentence, stutters and meaningless interjections e.g. someone saying ‘you know’ or ‘know what I mean’ or ‘kind of’ or ‘sort of’ every few seconds. If you have conducted an oral history project then you’ll know the sort of kind of thing I’m talking about, I’m sure! Know what I mean?

A significantly cheaper level of transcription is intelligent verbatim, which is a transcript of exactly what’s said (i.e. no tidying up of grammar) but missing out all the interjections and losing failed sentence starts (for example, ‘Well I think … I can’t really remember … I don’t know if you want to hear about … Well, during the war I had a puppy called Billy.’ would become ‘During the war I had a puppy called Billy.’), and not including stutters, coughs etc. However, we will always include any of these things if they particularly indicate emotion, and also put in, if it’s obvious from the recording, where someone laughs, cries etc.

Intelligent verbatim transcription will not only save you money, but give you a more relevant transcription that is easily searchable and more useful for all concerned.

So if your oral history project really wants to provide an invaluable record for the future, while audio recordings are fascinating and important, the written word is still really the most useful tool for researchers and writers.