Q&A with audio transcriptionist Teresa Bergen

View Post on OUP Blog

By Andre Shaffer

As you may have heard, Wisconsinites love the people who can quickly turn our spoken words into written text. Transcriptionists are the unsung heroes of the oral history world, helping to make sure the incredible audio information stored in archives across the globe is accessible to the largest audience possible. To learn more about the work they do, this week we bring you an interview with freelance transcriptionist Teresa Bergen.

How did you get started with transcription?

While getting an MFA in fiction writing at Louisiana State University, I worked part time in the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History and did contract Louisiana history research projects to put myself through graduate school. After graduating, I worked at the Williams Center fulltime for a while, mostly indexing and editing oral histories. In 2000, I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, planning to find a fulltime writing job. I soon realized it would be more lucrative and interesting to freelance as both a transcriptionist and a writer. I’ve been doing both for many years now.

How is technology changing the work you do?

I remember wondering if “this digital stuff was going to catch on.” It sure has! A couple of my clients still prefer cassette tapes, but now it’s overwhelmingly digital. While I prefer digital files, it’s a bit more confusing because there are so many formats. I use Express Scribe software, which is compatible with many but not all digital files. When I find myself battling with a mysterious file extension, I miss cassettes just a tad. They might have been distorted and prone to snap or melt, but a cassette was a cassette.

What was your most interesting transcription job?

I’m lucky because many different topics interest me, so I’m seldom bored. That is the hardest question to answer! A few projects that stand out are Civilian Conservation Corps workers building Acadia National Park in Maine, rural healthcare in Kentucky in the early 1900s, places that disappeared, such as an old company lumber town in Louisiana and the Nez Perce salmon fishing grounds on the Columbia River that were dammed years ago. Whenever people find an old box of forgotten cassettes, that’s pretty exciting. Usually they’ll be problematic – degraded tapes with poorly or unidentified narrators and/or interviewers – but I feel like I’m doing my little part to rescue a lost piece of history. I’ve listened to narrators who were born in the late 1800s, who remembered World War One and the 1918 influenza epidemic, who told their stories in the ‘60s then stayed locked in a box for 50 years. When I transcribe something like that I feel hugely privileged that I get to have this immediate experience of a long-gone person speaking right into my ears. I love transcription and while some people view it as lowly – I’m using skills from my eighth grade typing class (thank you, Mr. Medina of Dana Junior High in San Diego) more than from graduate school – I enjoy listening, typing, and making people’s stories accessible to interested researchers and descendants.

I feel hugely privileged that I get to have this immediate experience of a long-gone person speaking right into my ears.

What do you want oral historians to know about your work?

In order for me to do my best work, oral historians need to control the interviews. While most people I work with do an excellent job of this, some don’t. They interview groups of people and allow them to talk simultaneously and interrupt each other. Family members and spouses who constantly dispute or finish each other’s stories are the worst. I don’t have supernatural hearing. Nor am I talented at telling apart the voices of a group of people. So I’ll try my best, but after a few listens I’ll mark a passage [unclear] and move on.

Every once in a while this type of interviewer says, “Please speak one at a time. This will be too hard for the transcriptionist.” While I appreciate this consideration, the people who really lose out are the interviewer and the narrators. The interviewer is losing their precious research, plus the money they’re paying me for a product I can’t really deliver. And the interviewer is wasting the narrators’ time by not setting up an environment where the stories can be well preserved. This always pains me. Please, oral historians, don’t let your narrators run amok!

Also, if you’re interviewing a group of people, identify, identify, identify. Not just at the beginning. Ideally, every time a narrator speaks, he or she begins with, “This is Shirley” or whoever. Or the interviewer can say it for them. “That’s Shirley talking now.”  This may seem like overkill, but it makes your transcript much more reliable. And the narrators will see that you’re serious about honoring them as individuals with something to say of enduring historic relevance.

I love transcription. For me, it can be a very intimate experience with a stranger. When I listen closely enough to type word for word, I feel like a channel for somebody’s story, or even their life, especially if it’s a very old person or somebody who died between recording and transcription. I laugh, I cry, and they never know who I am.

We think all of our transcripting friends are beautiful, and we are eternally grateful for the work they produce. Add your voice to the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+. If you’d like to discuss an innovative project you’re working on, consider submitting it for publication on this blog.

Image Credit: “Typing” by Sebastien Wiertz. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.