Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

3: From Tape to the Page

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

3: From Tape to the Page

Article excerpt

TRANSCRIBERS OFTEN PRESUME that verbal material is reproducible in written form. The challenge when dealing with the oral record is that it must be reproduced as it is said in its original context; it cannot simply be reported or paraphrased. In other words, the transcript ought to document faithfully what is recorded on tape, video, CD, ? ? 3, and such other sound recording devices. That is the most difficult part. Nowadays, modern digital sound recorders that make it easier to reproduce sound are available, albeit costly. Modern equipment notwithstanding, reproducing a verbal text along with the aura of the moment - the context, the mood, tone, gesture, and other nonverbal elements of communication - remains problematical. Elizabeth Fine attributes this problem to the ephemeral nature of verbal art performances: "Even when we have audio and video or film recordings to preserve them, the sounds and images are fluid - they will not hold still for analysis."1 The oral text in many ways remains evanescent, eluding the collector's efforts to fully arrest it in print.

From my field experience, recording and transcribing information from tape to the page is an arduous task. My research assistants and I had taped over a dozen audio tapes in three languages and at the end of it all we had to transfer the oral material to paper. Working with three Ugandan languages (Luganda, Runyankore-Rukiga and Runyarwanda-Rufumbira) was not a problem for me, as I speak all three fluently, as well as four other Bantu languages spoken in central and south-western Uganda. The research assistants I worked with in each study area are also native speakers of the local languages there and therefore had no problem transcribing into the local alphabet.

The process of transcription involved sitting for long hours, playing and replaying the tape to capture every word. We soon discovered that a few sections of our audio tapes were not well recorded, so it took painstaking replay to capture the words. Where the words are not clear, I had to indicate this on the transcript, as is evident from some excerpts I have used in Chapter 2.

When research assistants participate in recording and transcription, the collector must give them specific instructions. For example, they need to remember important details such as asking respondents to provide information about themselves at the start of each session, including name, location, date and time of the meeting, details about the audience and even the text they are going to perform. Taking detailed notes on the above points is always useful, especially as the collector can easily be carried away with the narration and forgot to ask the teller to announce his or her personal information on tape. While reviewing the tapes, I found it helpful to consult my field notes in order to reconcile the information on the recording with the transcript. But not all research assistants are going to do a good job in transcribing the tapes. In my case, some texts were not transcribed verbatim as I had wanted; instead, some details were edited or paraphrased. Sometimes my assistants inserted explanatory details in the tale to elucidate some concepts in the local culture. This was certainly not part of the text itself, though the information did, of course, prove useful as footnotes.

The challenge for every transcriber, then, is always to narrow the everpresent gap between the oral text and the transcript. Many scholars have proposed various strategies for doing this, but whether their techniques have achieved transparency in their transcripts remains an issue for debate.

The Tedlock Method

In an effort to narrow this tape-to-page gap, Dennis Tedlock proposed an "oral poetics" by which he sought to provide a praxis for documenting oral texts.2 Studies of this subject had been undertaken in the early 1960s by the school pioneered by Dell Hymes.3 Hymes advocated a "proper and detailed documentation of the social and other contexts of speech. …

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