Variation in Transcription Practice; What’s an accurate transcription?

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Consider a conversation you had earlier in the day with at least three other people.  Imagine if you had to transcribe it, creating an accurate transcription of that exact conversation.  Do you believe that each person would record the conversation the same?  Every person brings a unique viewpoint, both socially and culturally.

It is not to say that these variations are errors or inaccuracy in transcription or a result of faulty transcribers.  Quite the contrary, it is simply inevitable.  Mary Bucholtz in her article Variation in Transcription, published in Discourse Studies in 2007, discusses transcription as a “sociocultural practice of representing discourse”  ( p. 785 ).

It is not only the language and words that are being written, but also the manner in which they are written that is worth studying.  She identifies four ways that an accurate transcription may represent the same spoken discourse, for instance research interviews,  in different contexts when transcribed: variation in the global representation of talk; variation in notation and format; orthographic variation; and variation in translation.

Sources of Variation in Transcripts

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Quite often, the method and format of transcription depends upon the use of the information post completion.  Thus, the format can represent the spoken discourse directly, as a non-linguistically relevant research source, or transcribed with attention to linguistic detail, including pauses, intonation, hesitation, etc.  These differences represent the variation in the global representation of talk.  Including a pause or a note of inflection in the tone may completely change the meaning of a word or phrase.

Likewise, this variation in notation and format can reflect practical purposes for omitting them or including them for analyzing the linguistic qualities of the speech.  There may be several differences between a transcription that is direct word for word versus that with notation and a pre-set format, which can give a linguistic researcher even more information than simply the words and content from the recording, such as orthographic variation.  

In this type of variation, there are two major schools of thought: those who are in favor of transcribing in a non-standard orthographic style (using non-standard spelling to represent vernancular speech) and those who favor the traditional style.  With the more information given via such notation, more analysis for the sociolinguistic scholar may be done with the more detailed sample.

The final variation is in translation, which if the transcriber and the speakers are from different cultures, could present an issue.  People have a natural tendency to think within their own cultural parameters, creating a “just like us” personification within the transcription based upon their own interpretation of the words (p. 801). 

On the flip side, the transcriber can also be distancing, creating the opposite “not like us at all” effect (p. 801). Both of these styles may be present even in the same transcript, based upon the perceived social status of the speaker by the transcriber and their unintentional stereotyping.  By using a non-standard orthography, this potential problem could be eliminated.

Accurate Transcription in Context

Conversations themselves are full of social and cultural contexts, creating transcriptions that are full of those same contexts, mixing with that of the transcriber.  The variations in these transcriptions and styles can have great strengths in using their differences in analyzing the linguistic strategies and culture.  As researchers and transcribers, we must be aware of these variations and embrace their analytic value rather than discount them as ‘inconsistencies’, ‘inaccuracies’, or ‘errors’ (p. 785).

That it for this post on variation in transcription practice. Hope you enjoyed. As always your comments, suggestions, or questions are welcomed. And see you on the next post on qualitative data collection.

Source: Bucholtz, M. (2007).  Variation in transcription.  Discourse Studies, 9(6), 784-808.

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