Guest Blog: From speech to text: How I became a Digital Volunteer
A volunteer perspective on working on Rewind by Digital Volunteer, Christina Lee
I came across the digital volunteer opportunity while I was doing a job search in the summer. I was writing my dissertation and thinking of things to do after my MA. At one job interview at a certain prestigious private school for an internship, I was asked about why I had so much volunteering experience on my CV and why I ‘wanted to make life harder for myself’. I was instantly put off and felt that even if they did offer me the role (they didn’t, thank goodness) I could never work for a company that thought volunteering was a waste of time.
Worth every minute
Before I was in a wheelchair I did a lot of volunteering and worked in charity shops and schools, but when I found that I couldn’t do these anymore I looked for ways to volunteer from home. Working for the ‘Rewind’ project is ideal for me because of my academic interests in disability studies and disability history. For me volunteering, whether real-life or digital, is not just ‘contributing to a good cause’. To put it selfishly, I like volunteering because it allows me to stop thinking of my own problems for a while and do something for others. It gets me out of the house and talking to people, which does a lot of good for my mental health as well. Volunteering gives you a sense of purpose and responsibility. Time management and honouring commitments are things I have learned from my volunteering, which I proudly put on my CV and do not apologise for.
Rewind, Replay, Repeat
I have worked as an intern on a digitalisation project at a museum archive before and have some transcription experience, but that was from manuscript to computer screen, not audio to text. Frustrating though it was to translate illegible 19th century handwriting, this was a whole new challenge. I’ve certainly found that voices are just as personalised as handwriting and just as difficult to ‘read’. While the sound quality is relatively clear in the clips I’ve transcribed, the speaker’s accent, manner of speaking, or simply old age can make certain words impossible to make out. Many times I’ve had to replay just those 3 seconds because I don’t know what they said. When there is a conversation between people, such as in the Carmel Short interview, it is even more difficult as, in spontaneous conversations, people often interrupt each other and never finish their sentences.
If this experience has taught me anything, it’s patience. I’ve had a fair share of re-watching clips of stage productions or films for academic work, but transcription requires a much greater level of attention to detail. Having to pause every few seconds to look at the time stamp, recording every stutter or pause can be demanding. In Georgina Kleege’s Sight Unseen, she talks about how very few films have audio-description, and how these are often very boring and vague. Even though I’m working on audio transcription rather than audio description, I bear in mind her comments when I transcribe, so I try to preserve a natural fluency of speech and the personality speaker as much as possible, indicating their mispronunciations and pauses, giggles or whispers just as I hear them. It’s not easy translating from one medium to another, it’s never perfect and there are bound to be mistakes, but I hope that my efforts will have been helpful to someone and contributed towards making archival content more accessible as whole.