Confessions from the Field: Tales of Translation

By Alice Riddell • MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology (alumnus)

This is the second instalment of the Confessions from the Field series by Alice Riddell, which presents field notes from fictional ethnographers. Read the previous one here.


Tales of Translation

Ivan DeKlee

My horror story starts at home and stays at home. In fact, it is located in this very spot where I currently sit writing this. Same view, same chair, same desk, different laptop. But I’ll get to that. 

I didn’t have a wonderful experience in the field but I also didn’t have an awful time either. I knew where I was going and the kind of people I would be talking to. I knew we didn’t share the same views. I was prepared for that and it was the best experience it could be. 

Most importantly, from an ethnographic perspective, I returned with copious amounts of data. Hours upon hours of interviews, filled with relevant and rich information. Apparently, this is the best problem to have; too much data. I didn’t quite see it that way then and I definitely don’t now. 

The first time I sat down to transcribe my interviews I realised very quickly that I wasn’t going to enjoy this. It’s a really shoddy equation; time taken does not equal words written. By a long shot. 

2 hours 45 minutes of a 3 and half hour interview to go. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Delete. Delete. Start. Kettle boils. Stop. Start. Lost concentration. Stop. Rewind. Start. Stop. 2 hours 37 minutes. 

8 minutes of transcription took me 35 minutes, 15 Start Stops (I only wrote 7 or so here because frankly who has the time) and an over-brewed cup of tea. This was relativity quick and painless as transcriptions go. 

We live in the age of the Internet, I thought to myself, there has to be an easier way to do this. And there is, kind of. Firstly, automatic transcription software costs a hefty £200-300. Not an affordable price range for an eating-beans-on-toast-uses-same-teabag-for-multiple-cups struggling student. Secondly, apparently these don’t even do the job. I read review after review on the failures of this software. If your audio has an accent that slightly deviates from the Queen’s English you have no hope of a successful transcription. I amused myself for a few hours on the fails that have ensued. One poor chap, ‘made a pubic spectacle out of himself even while wearing his best shit,’ while this doctor surely got in hot water for diagnosing someone with ‘sick-as-hell disease,’ right before seeing a patient for a follow up after his ‘penis was circus sized.’ I do believe these also serve as a clear warning to proofread one’s work. I guess they all deserved it. 

So that was that. No software to help me, I had to crack on alone. My steadily creeping deadline did not help matters. Time taken does not equal words written. This equation scorched across my mind every time I sat down at my computer. And what of actually writing the bloody paper. That seemed so distant, so unachievable, under the sierra of Start. Stop. Start. Stop. 

Another factor that aggravated the situation; I hated what I was listening to. I was becoming so frustrated transcribing what I believed to be nonsense spoken by someone I found extremely irritating. I had heard his voice so many times over and over. I didn’t want his voice out there. It made me hate everything about him. His words, his tone, his pitch, his stupid accent that inflects in all the wrong places. I found myself manically repeating what he would say in increasingly deranged and animalistic voices. Or I would mock out loud, “Oh you think that, do you John, good for you mate. Now sod off and let me live my life.” Clearly things were not going well. They don’t get any better.

BANG. BANG. BANG. On the keys. One key indents much longer than it should then pops free again. Stop. Clench fists. Breathe. Tap lighter then. Start. Lightness because floppiness and messiness and then nothingness. My hands lie splayed across the keyboard. BANG. My front door slams shut as my roommate comes home from work. I snap. 

My laptop hurls and flies in a dancing camber, arching and aching across the room. 

It looks weightless. I suddenly feel weightless. I don’t care about John and his shitty views. I don’t care about my cramping hand and blurred vision. I don’t care about having to transcribe for the rest of my life. BANG. Density floods back. I can acutely feel the impact of laptop to wall to floor as I crumple with it. 

If I thought I couldn’t afford transcription software how about a new laptop. And that’s just the monetary side. I lost all my work. Everything that I had already transcribed. I suppose this could also be a cautionary tale about insurance and backing up. One should really do both. All that remained from my joyous research was, of course, my original interview tapes. Can’t get rid of John that easily. 

I planned to end this story here. But then I spoke to one of my professors and explained that I was writing a piece for this collection and could he possibly offer me any advice. He recommended that I write more about my research, that I explain the specifics of the data collected and, this one really took the biscuit, that I talk more about John! Our meeting nearly set me off again. Was it not clear that I didn’t want to talk about my research ever again!? Have a thought for my new laptop sir! It is young and fresh and does not wish to meet a walled demise. 

Clearly, I was not destined to be an anthropologist. Both I, my professor and my laptop knew this. But I did still like writing. And having the freedom to write about what I wanted to write about. Within limits. I currently work as a freelance cultural science journalist. I write about anthropologists and their research, hence my knowledge of and unique participation in this collection. It was certainly a good career move, especially as it created a degree of separation between people like John and myself. Now that’s not to say that all anthropologists are great to work with. But so far, they are certainly better.

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