Nyssa Chow (2015) is an OHMA student and Teaching Fellow in our Method, Theory, and Interpretation course this fall through Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Her work with OHMA Co-Director Mary Marshall Clark to transform oral history by teaching visual literacy recently received Columbia’s Faculty Provost Award. In this post, Nyssa reflects on ethnopoetric transcription through Della Pollock and Hudson Vaughan’s talk in our Oral History Workshop Series this spring and discusses her experiences in visually expressing her narrators’ orality in print.
The translation of spoken history into a written transcript continues to be a challenge that oral historians contend with. How do we represent the unique “voice” of the narrator on the page? How do we retain the meaning and intention of the story? And when transcribing across cultural divides, how do we treat the narratives respectfully, and maintain the cultural specificity of the narration and gesture in a way that can be understood, without being reductive or anglicized?
Spoken language is not prose. Unlike prose, it utilizes more than punctuation, vocabulary and juxtaposition to convey meaning. Oral communication also uses intonation, emphasis, loudness, whispers, silences and pauses—both intentionally (as in volume and quickened speech used consciously to build suspense) or unintentionally (such as the hesitant pause before saying something difficult.) These augment the meaning of the spoken words, are key to understanding full intention behind what was said, and must be represented in the transcript.
In this way, we can think of an oral history as an ‘event’—as a performance. The content of that performance cannot be fully understood independent of its performative qualities, its verbal and non-verbal gesticulations. How then do we meet the challenge of rendering this performance faithfully on the page?
This past spring, Della Pollock and Hudson Vaughan presented in OHMA’s Oral History and Public Dialogue Workshop Series. They spoke about the work they were doing at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Making and Saving History. Their focus was on an engaged form of oral history that focused on tangible impact in their community.
As a tenured professor at UNC and a scholar in the field of oral history and performance, Pollock spoke passionately of oral history as a dialogic performance between the interviewer and interviewee. She introduced us to her approach to transcription called ethnopoetic transcription. It is a form of transcription that aims to honor both the words and the form of the narrator’s story—the gesticulations of speech.
Ethnopoetic transcription acknowledges oral history as a performance, and as such seeks to represent the performative qualities inherent to oral delivery in the transcription.
Pollock told the story of presenting an ethnopoetic transcript she’d done to one of her narrators, an African American woman. Upon reading the transcript, the woman began to cry—she’d felt that her words had been honored; she’d been moved by its representation on the page.
This was particularly resonant to me. I’d been grappling with ways to transcribe interviews of non-western narrators for what would be a Western audience. I found that transcribing into prose erased the cultural integrity of the speech patterns, their emphasis and their significance. I’d been searching for a way to represent the nuance of the oral performance in a way that was not tedious to read or incomprehensible beyond utility.
Ethnopoetic transcription is based on the approach applied to oral history by Dennis Tedlock, the McNulty Professor of English and Research Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
He says in “Learning to Listen: Oral History as Poetry”:
“…the relatively casual conversational narratives, which are the more ordinary business of the oral historian are themselves highly poetical and cannot be properly understood from prose transcripts. The meaning of spoken narrative is not only carried by the sheer words as transcribed by alphabetic writing but by the placement of silences, by tines of voice, by whispers and shouts.”
To address oral history as performance on the page, he defined a system of transcription outlined as follows:
A line change indicates a short pause, about 1/2 to 1 second;
A double space between lines, marked by “.” indicates a long pause, about 2
CAPITALS are loud;
Small type is soft;
Split-level lines indicate a chant-like delivery, with each level at a separate pitch;
Long dashes indicate lengthened vowels,
Short ones at the ends of lines are an interrupted delivery;
Repeated consonants are lengthened;
Other instructions are in [parenthesized italics].
While this may seem complex, it is in fact quite intuitive on the page. As an example, here is an expert from a Zuni narrative transcribed by Tedlock:
At that moment his mother
embraced him embraced him.
His uncle got angry his uncle got angry.
he beat his kinswoman.
And another example indicting the nuance of volume and word emphasis:
That was the HARDEST job because up there in Kansas
the weather is too HOT
nine o'clock, ten, twelve o'clock
bo————-y that's hot.
(staccato) Th’e héat comés u’p t’o yo’ur FA’CE
and the heat co’mes o’n yo’ur BACK- (throaty) gosh!
And you're pressing on
on the hot ground with your BARE HAND your KNEES-
we almost gave up on it.
These ethnopoetic transcriptions allow for a nuance that traditional prose transcriptions do not. I decided to try it for myself. What follows is an excerpt of an interview with a narrator from Trinidad and Tobago. She is talking about her mother’s insistence that she start working right away. Her mother came from little means during the days of British colonialism, and wanted financial security for her children.
The traditional prose transcription looked like this:
I started work at Republic Bank, it was Barclays at the time, the day after graduation. Hair still in fancy everything. Is the next morning I went to work- Next mornin. The day after graduation, I was in a job. Not a day holiday, not a nothing. The day after graduation.
And here is the ethnopoetic transcription.
I started work at Republic Bank,
it was Barclays at the time,
Hair still in fancy
Is the next morning I went to work-
I was IN a JOB
Not a day holiday [staccato] no’t a’ no’thing.
In the ethnopoetic transcript the language comes to life, its orality restored.
This form of transcription can be compared to the notation of music. In music there is no debate about the significance of pauses and of rhythm—these have meaning and so must be transcribed. The same is true with speech: the music of the speech is significant to the communication of meaning and intent. The ‘color’ of the speech is not incidental, rather it is the thing itself. And like music, without proper notation a transcription would not represent the original performance.
To see another example of ethnopoetic transcription, check out OHMA alum Pablo Baeza’s (2015) thesis website, Neuva York es La Frontera. Nyssa’s previous writing can be found on our OHMA blog and Della Pollock and Hudson Vaughan’s work can be accessed via the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Making and Saving History.
 Dennis Tedlock, Learning to Listen: Oral History as Poetry, Boundary 2, Vol. 3, No. 3, The Oral Impulse in Contemporary American Poetry (Spring, 1975), pp. 707-728