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Transcribers and VR software

It takes 6-8 hours to transcribe 1 hour of a recorded interview, depending on how closely you transcribe (getting all the ‘‘uhs’’ and ‘‘ers’’ and throat clearings, or just capturing the main elements of speech), how clear the recording is, and how proficient you are in the language and in typing. If you have to transcribe interviews yourself, there are several choices for equipment. Transcription software lets you control the recorder (start, stop, move forward and backward) using the keyboard. Transcriber machines let you do this using a foot pedal. This lets you listen to a couple of seconds of recording at a time, type everything into the computer, and then move on to the next chunk. The technology lets you go back and repeat chunks, all while keeping your hands on the keyboard.

With voice recognition (VR) software, you listen to an interview through a set of headphones and repeat the words—both your questions and your informant’s responses—out loud, in your own voice. The software listens to your voice and types out the words across the screen. You go over each sentence to correct mistakes (tell it that the word ‘‘bloat’’ should be ‘‘float’’ for instance) and to format the text (tell it where to put punctuation and paragraph breaks). The process is slow at first, but the software learns over time to recognize inflections in your voice, and it makes fewer and fewer mistakes as weeks go by. It also learns all the special vocabulary you throw at it. The built-in vocabularies of current VRS systems are enormous—something like 300,000 words—but, though they may be ready to recognize polygamy, for example, you’ll have to teach it polygyny or fraternal polyandry and words from the language of your field site. So, if you say, ‘‘Juanita sold eight huipiles at the market this week,’’ you’ll have to spell out ‘‘Juanita’’ and ‘‘huipiles” so the software can add these words to its vocabulary.

As the software gets trained, the process moves up to 95%-98% accuracy at about 100-120 words per minute. With a 2%-5% error rate, you still have to go over every line of your work to correct it, but the total time for transcribing interviews can be reduced by half or more. (More about VR software in appendix E) (Further Reading: transcription).

Recording Is Not a Substitute for Taking Notes

Finally, never substitute recording for note taking. Take notes during the interview about the interview. Did the informant seem nervous or evasive? Were there a lot of interruptions? What were the physical surroundings like? How much probing did you have to do? Take notes on the contents of the interview, even though you get every word on the machine.

A few informants will let you use a recorder but will balk at your taking notes. Don’t assume, however, that informants will be offended if you take notes. Ask them. Most of the time, all you do by avoiding note taking is lose a lot of data. Informants are under no illusions about what you’re doing. You’re interviewing them. You might as well take notes and get people used to it, if you can.

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