a journal of observations, obsessions and inspirations

musings on the artist's life

Posted in: Writing

Accuracy versus entertainment – 10 rounds

Nearly 140 interviews into the tenor book, I’m trying to wrangle all the material. I have binders full of transcripts, and tapes yet to be transcribed. Typing up a verbatim record of the conversation is hard to do. The hardest part, I’m not kidding, is deciding on the punctuation. Think about it: no one talks in complete sentences unless he’s reading a speech. And when you’re discussing topics and themes that are hard to put into words anyway, you don’t have the thought fully formed as you start to speak. There are starts and stops, changing direction, finding the right words, jumping to another thought that suddenly occurs to you. How could I translate all this to the printed page? Where do the commas go? or a semicolon? how about an ellipsis? when would a dash be better?

It was important to make sure I was retaining the flavor of the conversation, preserving the rhythm and cadence, conveying the personality and intelligence of the speaker, and sharing the fun we had in talking about everything under the sun. After the transcribing’s done, I listen to the tape again, following along on the page, correcting, adjusting, notating as I go. Everything stays in except the umms and mm-hmms, though even those are in the transcript. But not in the final product.

I take out most of the repetitions, most of the incomplete thoughts. With some of my multi-lingual interviewees, I have occasionally Anglicized a word or phrase (no matter how charmingly descriptive), so he or she will not come across as uneducated—the truth is exactly the opposite, as my subject’s English was always far better than my halting, fragmented Italian, Spanish, German, French or Russian. But I wanted to show the thinking that was taking place, the struggle we sometimes had to find the words. Bottom line: I haven’t “corrected” the quotes to the point of perfection.

But everyone can seem either pretty stupid or stale as Saturday afternoon’s toast when their animated comments are no longer linked to the inflection in the voice, a twinkle in the eye, the sound of laughter. Most of my interviews have been with performers who were, at times, playing to me, sometimes more than a little; and sometimes that was as much a comment on what was being said as the words themselves. To that end, as needed, I have tried to tell what was taking place with a description of facial expression or gesture. But when reduced to letters on a page, what was dynamic and fluid in conversation can appear lifeless as a court transcript being read back to the jury.

Lifeless is not what I want here, so let’s just say that the interviews are being, à la Rosemary Woods, “edited for clarity.” So what exactly does that mean? How accurate are these comments? The answer is, very. I have no wish to sanitize anything and I certainly don’t want to make my conversation partner sound like me—otherwise, I’d have just made all this up and not bothered doing the interviews. These are their stories and their words.


  1. Patrick Ross - March 30, 2013 8:46 am

    Hi Martha! Your project is just so inspiring and, dare I say, a bit overwhelming.

    I found interesting your point on not wanting to make people sound uneducated while at the same time not correcting them to the point of perfection. I’ve found that in some cases I’ll leave in some colloquial language that we might otherwise not want recorded because, well, it is reflective of their unique voice. My fear is making everyone sound the same, or worse, everyone sound like me. (Although when writing actual interview summaries, I’m not in there nearly as much as the subject, at least not in dialogue; perhaps at times in reflection, but I like to keep a good pace.) I’m curious to know if you’ve encountered that challenge.

  2. martha - March 30, 2013 9:15 am

    Making everyone not sound like me, or keeping their true voice: Yes! This one never moves to the back burner. A few years back, I experimented with transcribing only the “important” parts of a conversation – edited as I was listening/typing, to take out umms, errs, and 99% of my comments. Was really proud of myself for saving time… until I read it over later. I’d taken a conversation that I remembered as lively, intelligent, passionate about opera and suddenly, one of my Top 5 interviews was lying there on the page, lifeless.

    Disappointed and puzzled, I listened to the tape again – and had a light-bulb moment. Without my comments, questions, and what I call yummy sounds (Mmmm. Oh, right. Yeah! Okay. Really? – any of those), there was no way to recall the rhythm of the conversation. Where did he start talking so fast about something, especially a something we both found fascinating, that our words overlapped each other? This is key – if my subject cares that much, then that *something* is probably important to him. And that makes it important to me.

    I edited the transcript, putting all the overlaps, interruptions and yummy sounds back in and… there it was. The way I’d remembered.

    Now. How much of that will get translated to the final? Not sure… but I have the material to work with now, and that helps with the overwhelm factor (which is *huge*) – also not sure whether this is my story that others are helping tell, or whether I’m the guide to their story – but it’s a long journey, a process, one foot in front of the other and all that.

    Thanks for the encouragement – as you know, there are few things more helpful than that!