Creating verbatim transcripts can be challenging. My staff has had hours of discussion and debate about this over the years. A question recently came to me asking (paraphrased): Since the Nunn Center wants “verbatim” transcripts, how do you handle “gonna” versus “going to”? Do you use “’cause” with an apostrophe instead of typing “because”? Yes, officially, the Nunn Center strives for verbatim transcripts, including all the false starts and crutch words. We want a verbatim transcript. It may not be pretty, but it will be accurate. For example:
Original First Draft Transcript
KAREM: it was just a, an enemy … may have been people that she surrounded herself with, it may have been just bad advice and whatever, but it was a terrible, terrible time for her.
Revised Final Version of Transcript:
KAREM: She just, uh, it was a, just a, an, an, you know, may have been, uh, people that she surrounded herself with. It may have been just bad advice, whatever, but it was a terrible, terrible time for her.
gonna vs. going to
As a general rule, we do not transcribe words that aren’t said, just to make things more readable or look more formal in textual form. So, if someone says, “I’m gonna be there late,” they mean [formally] “I am going to be there late.” However, that is not what they said. We often turn to the Oxford English Dictionary on these calls regarding colloquialisms and vernacular speech. In this case, “gonna” is described as “a variant or an alteration of another lexical item.” Since the intended “to” [a separate word] was never spoken, we do not transcribe it.
because vs. ’cause / hollow vs. holler
We will, however, transcribe syllables that are dropped, such as “because” instead of “‘cause.” We mostly render dropped syllables such as the “be” in “because,” as this creates more of a challenging judgement call on the part of a transcriptionist. Was the speaker taking a breath while speaking? Did the speaker actually mouth the “be-” but their lips were dry that day and slightly stuck together? Did the microphone just not pick up that syllable? In the case of dropped syllables, we lean toward including that dropped syllable and typing “because.” Another example of this is “hollow” versus “holler.” Typically, if someone says “up in the holler” we will type “hollow” rather than “holler.” In the opening lines of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” country music icon Loretta Lynn refers to her birthplace as “Butcher Holler.”
Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler
As a sung (or even written) lyric, the pronunciation works perfectly expressed as “Holler” as it maintains the couplet’s end rhyme with “daughter” in the previous line. However, in an oral history transcript we would have typed the reference to Butcher Hollow (pronounced as Butcher Holler) with an “-ow” instead of the pronounced “-er.” Butcher Hollow is the official place name that is being referenced. I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. There are people who pronounce my hometown as “Cincinnat-uh.” If we had transcribed these words as pronounced, the contents of interviews containing “Cincinnatuh” would not be effective or useful to researchers looking for information on Cincinnati. More than likely, the user won’t search for pronunciations, especially with regard to place names. .
My views on transcripts and their role have shifted a great deal over the years. There was a time when transcripts were viewed as the primary access point for oral history. Through systems like OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) access to audio and video has become the Nunn Center’s primary access point. For me, the transcript has now become a discovery tool, not the oral history itself. With that said, I now view transcripts as descriptive metadata.
As a general rule, the Nunn Center recommends against transcribing words that aren’t spoken. Dropped syllables and pronunciation tend to be mapped to the word that was intended, unless there is a clear colloquialism. I am pretty hard line with the notion that oral history transcripts should be verbatim transcription. If a word is spoken, it must be represented, including the “uhms and uhs.” However, how the word is represented is a more complicated question. The Nunn Center utilizes the Oxford English Dictionary when words are in doubt. Both “Gonna” and “‘cause” are in the OED appropriately. Because “gonna” is a whole word and “‘cause” just indicates a dropped syllable, we will defer to OED on the word, but transcribe the dropped syllable.
There are endless debates on this matter. Like many, the Nunn Center has developed a style guide for transcription. When we first set out to create the style guide, it was closely derived from the Baylor University Institute for Oral History Style Guide: A Quick Reference for Editing Oral History Transcripts. Baylor’s style guide has always been the most comprehensive resource on oral history transcription. Another great resource is Linda Shopes’ Transcribing Oral History in the Digital Age which is available via Oral History in the Digital Age. As the Nunn Center’s local style has evolved, there were some clear aspects of these guides that we disagreed with (and at that time, Baylor’s guide was outdated…it has since been updated). We started to populate our version with new policies and examples from our archive, and over the years have developed a rich guide for documenting the Nunn Center’s emerging style.
Admittedly, I am torn on this issue…especially with regards to the representation of “Holler.” This is a vital process to go through for anyone or institution that will be transcribing oral history collections. The professional transcription community can provide guidance, but ultimately, you have to find policies and standards that work for you or your institution. When it comes to transcription, we have to balance the need for verbatim representation of speech with being mindful of the power of language and culture.