In this post, current OHMA student Pablo Baeza reflects on his internship with Voice of Witness, publishers of a human rights-focused oral history book series. Pablo discusses the ethics of editing interviews for publication and offers a comparison to the experience of compiling his thesis website, Neuva York es la Frontera.
Early on in the semester, when learning sound editing, a guest speaker for a prominent radio program talked about the importance of shaping narratives from interviews and showed us the staggering number of edits necessary to adapt a life story to a short radio vignette. A debate ensued when a few of my classmates contested him on the idea of heavily editing and sequencing someone’s story in order to present it as media—what edits are ethical? When does the hand of an editor become so strong that it overtakes the original meaning-making of the narrator and their storytelling? The discussion ended up highlighting the importance of context, while leaving much unresolved.
This semester, as I worked on the creation of a multimedia documentary website (https://nuevayorkeslafrontera.wordpress.com) to publicly display my own thesis work, on the lives of New York-based Latina immigrant activists, I also interned for Voice of Witness’s Managing Editor, Luke Gerwe. Voice of Witness (www.voiceofwitness.org) is a small press that deploys oral histories as a means of transforming human rights journalism. Voice of Witness books provide first person accounts of such issues as the exploitation of undocumented migrant farm workers in California and solitary confinement, both issues I got to work on this spring. Gerwe oversees the individual book projects undertaken by editors, responsible for research, interviewing, and the various logistical nuts and bolts of writing life history collections. He also supports book projects as an editor—which I, as his intern, was also primarily responsible for.
Since I am a native Spanish speaker and deeply interested in issues of migrant justice, my work both at Voice of Witness and in my own research in OHMA involved working with stories at every level—as a transcriber, translator, and editor. Yet our approaches in some ways differed significantly. With both my thesis work and my work for Voice of Witness, I found myself thinking carefully about decisions around standardizing syntax and sentence structure, thinking about how to translate colloquialisms (“really” sounds less formal than “very,” for example), and including or omitting all the ums and likes that come up whenever people talk.
Yet, unlike in my thesis work, where I had to be extremely self-starting and decide for myself how to make editorial decisions, working as an editor’s assistant for a small press required taking on the challenge of adapting the unique voices of all of our narrators into highly consistent written prose, prose that read smoothly without homogenizing the personalities of each interviewee. Through the experience I came to think critically, not just about the ethics of editing and learning to intelligently and honestly sequence many anecdotes often not told chronologically and full of digressions, but about the very idea of “standard” English.
I thought about the grammar of an interviewer conducting his interview in Spanish, his second language. I thought about narrators who, as English as a second language speakers, told incredibly vivid, compelling stories about subjects from getting held at ransom by smugglers to teaching their kids the importance of being bilingual—without the “proper” conjugations or tenses. Was “we scared by the room” as powerful as “we were scared in the room”? [Not an actual excerpt]. Often, I chose to smooth out and “standardize” grammar in order to acknowledge existing prejudices around the “correct” way to speak English. Yet so much of what I learned from Voice of Witness were the very politics of language itself, not just what someone is saying in their story but the way they articulate it, and the necessary translation that happens from audio to transcript to edit.
I faced similar questions in my own work, but found different answers. Due to its immediately bilingual audience and emphasis on orality, I chose to transcribe in an ethnopoetic style. This meant translating twice over: once, by shaping the audio into a poem-style transcript, in a column, and then, in a second column, by translating the poem-transcriptions—for Spanish interviews, English translations, for English interviews, Spanish translations. Doing this allowed me explore the ways in which translations were or were not equivalent, but it also meant focusing more explicitly on the rhythms of my narrators’ speech, and on the ways in which transcription is inherently translation. Whereas in Voice of Witness I focused on content, acknowledging the book format and wide breadth of stories being captured, in my own work, my smaller narrator pool and decision to display audio along with transcripts compelled me to do less to standardize and edit transcripts, even leaving occasional ums or likes. The end result, though still highly edited and meant to be readable, demands perhaps a closer, more intimate focus on form and language, one that might prove challenging to someone hoping to focus on narrative and content.
Neither approach is “wrong,” neither is “right.” Both constitute fundamental translations, adaptations, of the original audio of our narrators. Thus, in different ways, and according to different editing standards, being able to work for Voice of Witness even as I refined my own transcription, translation and editing work allowed me to fully recognize the significance of something we at OHMA are taught from the start of our program—even an apparently “verbatim” transcript is an adaptation. The importance of the editor in ethically adapting both the narrative voice and content of someone’s life story, then, is an act of mediation—a necessary and unavoidable facilitation, from speaker to listener.
To learn more about Voice of Witness, including their book series and oral history education work, visit www.voiceofwitness.org.
To learn more about Pablo’s work interviewing Latina immigrant activists in New York about their migrations, struggles and stories, visit https://nuevayorkeslafrontera.wordpress.com.