Transcription Tricks

by Sunny McClellan Morton | Nov 29, 2011

At some point in our genealogical research, most of us need to make written or typed copies of original records: gravestone inscriptions, letters or diaries, oral history interviews, etc. This process is known as transcribing, or creating a transcript. We often research from these transcripts instead of original sources, to which we may not have permanent access. This means it's vital to know how to make accurate transcripts.

Transcripts reproduce exactly what is written in a document or spoken on a recording. Transcripts are usually typed, but handwritten transcripts are sometimes created when it's not possible or practical to create a typed one.

Many practical purposes are served when you make transcripts:

  • Fragile original documents or tapes are better preserved when you can handle a copy instead;
  • Your transcript becomes a backup version of an original that may deteriorate, become damaged or lost over time;
  • You preserve information to which you may have temporary or limited access (like a document on microfilm or an original in an archive);
  • The transcript is generally much easier to research from than original documents or tapes;
  • Content is easy to share or paste into your family history manuscript.

Creating an accurate transcript isn't difficult, but it can be tricky. Below, read some of the challenges you'll face--and ten tips for making a transcript you can trust.

Challenges

Is it really that difficult to create a responsible transcript? You just type every word from your grandmother's diary, or everything she said on that audiotaped interview from 1976, right? Yes and no.

Anyone who has read old documents or participated in indexing projects knows that manuscripts aren't always easy to read. Handwriting styles change with practically every generation. Each person's writing has little idiosyncrasies: tightly-formed letters, "i"s that aren't dotted, or squiggles at the end of words that might be additional letters or just curlicues. Inconsistent spelling, bad grammar, unfamiliar names, and foreign words complicate your ability to guess at what's written. Even typed manuscripts may have smeared or blotchy areas, messy strikeovers, or uneven ink transfer (making letters appear either too faint or fat). Typed documents are just as prone to bad grammar and spelling as handwritten ones, and typos are common.

Audio and video recordings can also be tricky to transcribe. Audio tracks may be packed with background noise and multiple speakers. People's accents or emotions may make them harder to understand. Interviewees often don't complete their thoughts, and may change topic mid-stream, making the conversation tough to follow. If you can't see the speaker, you can't pick up clues from body language or mouth-reading.

Don't let these obstacles discourage you, though. Use your common sense, pay attention to details, and follow these ten tips for creating trustworthy transcripts:

  • Read the manuscript--or listen to the interview--all the way through before you start taking it down. Familiarity with the handwriting or voices helps you better understand them and sort out any distractions on the tape or paper. You'll start to recognize a curlicue as a meaningless flourish, and the subtle difference between the writer's "r" and "s." Gradually you'll better understand that eastern European accent, or tune out the sound of the lawnmower in the background of the recording.
  • If you're working with a document that's not very legible, keep a handwriting guide handy. Kip Sperry's Reading Early American Handwriting and Understanding Colonial Handwriting by Harriet Stryker-Rodda are two great references for old U.S. documents. To decipher foreign handwriting, turn to the many excellent guides at familysearch.org. From the home page, select "Learning," then enter the term "handwriting." You'll see articles on reading handwriting in German, Scottish, Dutch, Italian, Norse, French, Russian, Scandinavian, Old English, Swedish, Japanese, Danish, and more.
  • Transcribe precisely (and only) what you see or hear. This includes all those incomplete thoughts and false starts that people use in normal conversation: "Well he came...he meant to come....he really didn't show up until it was too late." Later, you can edit a more readable version of the transcript for your relatives to read. For now, any of your additions, clarifications, or corrections should be minimal, and should be in square brackets (not rounded parentheses, like these). Example: "Arthur married Maggie [Margaret O'Connor] in the winter of 1971 [actually 17 Dec 1970]."
  • Leave the original grammar and spelling as it appears. A name you think is misspelled may be a legitimate alternate spelling. An odd turn of phrase may express something important. A colorful manner of expression gives insight into a subject's background and personality. If you must correct something, put it in brackets: "She lived up the holler [hollow]." To show that a word was misspelled in the original document (and not by you), add "[sic]." For example: "she whild [sic] away her time." However, don't try to reproduce a regional or ethnic accent. It can be distracting and offensive. If you hear "What kin I say?" write it as "What can I say?" because that is what's being said.
  • Do add bracketed comments that describe the emotional or visual experience of the original. To a document you might add notes like "[change in penmanship]" or "[marginal notes]". To an interview you might add description of a person laughing, gesturing, hesitating, or crying.
  • When punctuating handwritten documents, stick with the original marks as much as possible. Don't add or omit anything. Don't write out abbreviations, even if you're confident you know what they stand for. When you're transcribing a conversation, you'll have to guess at the punctuation as best you can. Incomplete sentences are to be expected in conversation: "Grandma always got me new socks for Christmas. And sometimes a Matchbox car."
  • Use your word-processing software to reproduce handwritten symbols or formats. Underline or put in boldface any text that the author wrote that way. Use font effects to reproduce superscripted text, or text written above the line (like "Wm the commonly abbreviated form of the name William. Use a "strikethrough" font effect to indicate words that have been crossed out: "He arrived in Mantua this last spring." To do these in Microsoft Word, highlight the text in question, choose "Font," and choose the effect, like "Superscript" or "Strikethrough."
  • Don't skip sections, even if they're not interesting to you. That boring part may become important later in your research. You can legitimately leave out material that isn't about your family at all, or that the person being interviewed asked you not to share. Note the skipped section and the reason for it with a bracketed comment: "[3 minutes of footage not transcribed at request of interview subject]."
  • Be sure the transcript contains full citation information for the original source. For a document, this includes the author(s), date, title of document, and the location of the original (like in a manuscript collection at a library, or part of a family archive). For an interview, note the names of interviewers and interviewees, date and place of interview, and format and description of the tape or digital file. If you don't know all this information, add your best guess with a question mark. ("Videotaped interview of Charlie Ayers by Sally Ayers, [Thanksgiving weekend?] 1983." The transcript should also identify you as the creator of the transcript, with a transcription date.
  • After creating your transcript, it's perfectly acceptable to edit portions for sharing or for use in your family history manuscript. When editing, be sure the original meaning is communicated to the best of your understanding. Note whether quoted material has been edited and why. When practical, try to include images of original documents so readers can verify content and enjoy the original.

Every document or recording offers its own transcription challenges. You may need to figure out how to describe a drawing done on a diary page, or a speaker's discomfort every time he mentions his brother. But knowing what makes an excellent transcript--and the tricks for communicating all those quirky details from the original sources--will help you render even the messiest document or incoherent interview into a trustworthy transcript from which you'll be able to research for years to come.


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