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  • The Social Life of Transcriptions: Interactions around Women’s Songs in Kangra
  • Kirin Narayan (bio)

Moving oral traditions into the domain of the printed word involves a first step of transcription.1 Anyone who has transcribed recordings from fieldwork will recollect the grinding effort demanded by this task. One listens again and again: striving to catch the meaning and tone of words as they gallop past, struggling to coax a herd of words into orderly lines, straining to remain attentive to other sounds—comments, interjections, interruptions, parallel performances—that are simultaneously shaping a text. Yet when working with a language other than one intended for publication, assembling a transcription can almost immediately give way to the work of refining a translation and the challenge of embedding a text in the analytical frameworks of presentations and published writings. In this essay, though, I pause to consider the practice of transcription, and the material artifacts made when moving oral tradition into written form. Drawing on fieldwork with singers and their songs in Kangra, Northwest India, I ask: what sorts of social interactions and cultural insights are generated around the laborious process and the raw product of transcribing oral texts?

At first glance, transcribing another’s words might appear a perfectly mechanical task—one that voice recognition software could seamlessly accomplish if programmed to understand the language and the idiosyncrasies of a particular speaker. Yet our choices for the form of transcription emerge from our own and local biases of what certain genres of texts look like, and decisions on presentation shape how readers read, recognize, and re-imagine oral texts from the page (Fine 1984; Finnegan 1992:194–207; Tedlock 1983). Further, the form of recording that was used also affects the resulting text; for example, as Dennis Tedlock’s (1983) groundbreaking work on transcription of Zuni oral narratives has shown, dictation (as with Boasian handwritten texts) radically influences the spoken tempo of performance (38), while recording devices are an altering presence in their own right (298–99). Following Tedlock, many scholars have striven for greater fidelity to oral performance by adapting the use of different fonts, formats, notes, and asides in producing transcribed texts. Depending on the intended purpose, folk narratives, life stories, oral testimonies, plays, songs, and other performative genres that have been adapted to written form all demand different creative challenges—yet once written up, the decisions made en route may vanish. As Ruth Finnegan writes (1992:199), “oral-derived texts are sometimes presented as authoritative, but without knowing the transcribing strategies it is dangerous to accept this at face value.”

From the perspective of anthropologists, the transcription of others’ words is part of a larger spectrum of texts generated while “writing culture” (Clifford and Marcus 1986). Fieldnotes too are rife with quotes, even if they do not carry entire stretches of oral texts. In attempting to reproduce others’ words with fidelity, written transcriptions of oral traditions remain more openly recognizable as the creation of others than fieldnotes (which also may be others’ creations, though they are usually retold in the author’s voice). Particularly when written down in a script that the performers themselves are able to read—or understand when read aloud —transcriptions can represent mutually recognizable fragments of shared cultural knowledge, and so are invaluable for eliciting oral literary criticism (Dundes 1966; Narayan 1995) and for more generally facilitating interpretive collaborations (cf. Lassiter 2008; Lawless 1993). In a tribute to Julie Cruikshank’s The Social Life of Stories (1998), I think of these fieldwork interactions as an aspect of the social life of transcriptions.

A few years ago, the Belgian journal Interval(le)s published a special issue on “Interdisciplinary Transcriptions” (2008) that brought together writers and scholars from many fields to showcase a wide span of disciplinary engagements with the process and products of transcription. In an essay for that issue, I was inspired to reflect on aspects of transcribing and translating a Hindu holy man’s teaching stories (Narayan 2008b) that I had not elaborated on when writing about these stories for my first book (Narayan 1989). That essay made me also think more closely about transcribing women’s songs in Kangra in the...

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