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Feb 21, 2005 9:32 am

This is what I mean

In the Stern and Holland article on presidential tapes they assert that

In essence, the historian/editor unavoidably becomes the author of a “new” source because even a transcript alleged to be “verbatim” is irreducibly subjective at some level. As a result, the historian’s responsibility in this genre is a very unusual one, and requires the most careful scholarship imaginable. No other task of discovery and/or interpretation in the historical canon is quite comparable.
Except, perhaps, for translating stuff from other languages. Some of us do that all the time. Some of us translate stuff from old languages that don't have living speakers to with whom to discuss meanings or fill in gaps. Some of us translate stuff from modern languages which have changed dramatically over recorded time. Some of us translate stuff from languages from widely varying families in which grammatical and lexical differences make even relatively simple translations matters of judgement and context. But no, Americanists, faced with trunks full of the most incredible sources ever created -- Presidential tapes, for crying out loud -- have to whine about having to use their judgement (or, god forbid, trust someone else's judgement) in editing and using a source.

Come on. Anthropologists and linguists and oral historians have been using recorded sources for a few dozen years; why don't we find out how they handle transcription? Why do Americanists have to reinvent the wheel (and then agonize over whether circularity should be defined geometrically or mathematically) when some of us have been merrily rolling about for some time now?

Note: a few updates to the Ward Churchill in Hawai'i story. No word yet on simulcast, though, and the UH system calendar doesn't list the lecture, yet.

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Robert KC Johnson - 2/21/2005

Very interesting. Part of the question, of course, revolves around the intended target audience for the transcripts, and the Stern/Holland approach seems geared toward producing transcripts that will be less valuable for historians and more for linguists.

More broadly, I agree with Jon's point that the Stern/Holland piece overestimates the "uniqueness" of the problems that they claim to identify.

Gabriel Rossman - 2/21/2005

Sociologists transcribe tape according to whether we're more interested in the gist of a conversation or its structure. Ordinarily, we use common sense transcriptions that eliminate most of the verbal hiccups. However, conversational analysis (a subfield of sociology with close ties to linguistics) uses extremely detailed transcripts of talk, which can reveal subtle power dynamics. For an example that is relevant to this specific topic, see Clayman and Heritage's 2002 article "Questioning Presidents" in the Journal of Communication.

Ed Schmitt - 2/21/2005

I certainly agree that in relative terms we Americanists often have an embarrassment of riches. But doesn't the agonizing, as you describe it, point to recognition of limits and flaws in even the best of source bases? That we may still be holding, as W.S. Holt contended, a "damn dim candle over a damn dark abyss"? Again, in relative terms you're clearly right, but I think their agonizing has merit.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/21/2005

Translation from other printed languages and transcription from tape are related but not the same process. Moreover, even where other scholars have transcribed recorded oral material, the process that Stern, Holland, and Johnson describe is more complicated because it requires the capacity to distinguish and identify particular voices and attempt to create a commonly accepted text on subjects that are likely to become highly contested.

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