Monday, December 16, 2019

Basic Consultant Skills for Transcribing and Translating Oral Texts

Recently, I had the pleasure of transcribing and translating some oral texts with the help of my consultants. I took the opportunity to jot down some consultant skills that are useful when dealing with oral texts. As skills, they need to be learned and practiced.

Listening to a line of text and repeat it back exactly.

This skill is hard top master in many ways. It requires the consultant to be able to listen to a particular sentence from the whole text, and repeat it back. When they repeat it, they need to repeat it exactly, instead of changing certain words, dropping words or adding words. Also, they should not mix repeating the line with the explanation of the line.

Preferably the consultant will repeat the line at a slightly slower rate, speaking clearly. Often in relating oral texts, people speak so fast that words are hard to discern, vowels and consonants of certain words are greatly reduced or dropped or mushed together. They also sometimes speak very softly, almost at a whisper. In fact, there are many reasons that the text might be hard to transcribe. Saying the line a bit more slowly and clearly can help a lot in transcribing text.

Some problems that I have encountered in teaching this skill: One consultant would not repeat a question asked in the text, rather they insisted on answering the question posed. Another consultant could only repeat speech that they themselves produced, and would not repeat the speech of the other people speaking.

You can help the consultant to learn this skill. Take a simple and short line that you have already successfully transcribed (preferably with the same consultant). Then repeat it back clearly and slightly slower than the original text. Do this several times. Then have the consultant try. Have them repeat it. If they do it right, let them know. 

Listening to a line and translating it.         

The consultant needs to translate into the language of communication (in my case is Setswana). The translation should preferably follow the original line as closely as possible, and should not mix in immediately preceding or following lines. Sometimes for longer lines, consultants will just translate the most important part, or the latter half. So you might have to break down longer lines. The translation should not be mixed with explanation of what is happening in the text.

Listening to a quote, and saying who produced it.

In oral texts, there is often reported speech. In those cases, it is necessary to know which character produced the speech. Most of the time this is clear, but in some cases there is ambiguity. The consultant should be able to say which character produced the speech.

Saying who a pronoun refers to.

If a pronoun appears in a text, the consultant should be able to tell you which character it refers to. More generally the should be able to tell you who is being described or talked about in any given line of text.

Defining a single word from a line of text.

Often, in transcribing and translating a text, new words come up. The consultant should be able to give a short definition of those words. Later on, you can come back and fully explore what the word means in another session. This way, you do not disrupt the follow of the transcription session.

Repeating a single word (from a text) three times.

If a new word comes up in a text, you will need to transcribe it accurately. It can help to record it in isolation (repeated three times) right away, and to use the recording and Praat to help transcribe it (e.g., looking at click accompaniments and tone). Recording in this way depends on many other skills that I outlined in the blog post “Basic Consultant Skills for Linguistic Fieldwork”.

Learning how to produce an oral text.

Some oral texts, like folktales, are passed down and have a set form. In my experience some consultants know folktales and are happy to relate them, but others do not know any.

Other oral texts, like instructions (how-to) and life histories, are more challenging. The consultant may wonder what exactly they are supposed to say. They have never had to convey the same information in the format the linguist wants (as a relatively short oral text). Sometimes producing a good oral text requires feedback from the linguist and several iterations (each can be video recorded and played back for the consultant). For example, for giving instructions about making something, the linguist can help the consultant lay out the steps in the process before recording the oral text.

Even with feedback and iterations, some consultants never arrive at being able to produce a solid oral text. One technique is to pair the consultant up with another consultant and record the oral text as an interview (this works well with life histories). Consultant A asks consultant B questions. Both questions and answers are given in the target language (e.g., Sasi in my case). I find that most people respond very well to this question-answer format.

Recognizing interesting topics for oral texts.

The best source of ideas for oral texts are the consultants themselves. Some consultants are very good at coming up with good ideas for oral texts. But they need to have some idea of what the linguist is looking for. Talking to the consultants and letting them know about research and goals is helpful. Discuss with them a range of topics that they might speak about. Also, playing oral texts for them that have been collected from other speakers can also be very helpful.

Another idea for generating interesting oral texts is to just set up the camera and let it roll for several hours. If the consultant is using the target language, often there will be interesting stretches that can be targeted for transcription and translation. Or those stretches can yield ideas for future texts.

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