Tag Archives: oral history transcription

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.

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!

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.