How to Transcribe an Oral History Interview

How to Transcribe an Oral History Interview

If you haven’t already checked out my previous blog on what is oral history, kindly have a look at it. Just to recap, in the blog, we defined it as the collection of historical data from individuals who either lived through a moment in time or have crucial information regarding the moment.  It is therefore important that if the oral history audio data are to be transcribed, the oral history transcript should be an accurate representation of what was in the audio recording. This means that the final transcript should include false starts, (abrupt change in thought process) grammatical errors Freudian slips, subject changes. Just a raw interpretation of the audio interview.  

In this blog post we’re going to be looking at general transcription tips to consider for oral historians looking to transcribe or get their audios transcribed as well as a sample of a final transcript and video link to the transcript. 

Verbatim Transcripts

This is the most favored type of transcript for oral historians looking to get their audios transcribed.  The reason being is because, verbatim transcripts essentially include every single detail in the audio recording, so they give an almost exact expression of the audio recording. This includes non-verbal cues such as coughing, birds chirping, pauses. It gets a bit tedious to include every single uttered and non-uttered word by the speakers, but this ensures that every single aspect of the audio are included.


Inaudible are in easy terms words or phrases that are incapable of being heard by the transcriber. Sometimes even a well-done interview may have a couple of indecipherable words or phrases due to a number of factors, such as background noises. Hitting play and pause and replay to hear a word that may be indecipherable takes up a lot of time and deadlines don’t change. This can be handled with the help of an inaudible. The transcriber should mark the spot with a timestamp, to indicate the time on the audio that the inaudible was heard. Most timestamps can be inserted automatically with a few taps on your keyboard, but if not, they can be inserted manually.   Inaudible are normally indicated in the following manner [inaudible 00:00:00] (see timestamp formatting below)

Abbreviations and Symbols

It is recommended that abbreviations should be avoided unless they are used for common titles such as Mrs., Mr., Dr., Spell out words and symbols, avoid using symbols such as & and spell it out instead, use the word and instead of the symbol &. There are exceptions however, when it comes to currencies, for example, $200.

To name or Not To name

Sometimes the narrator prefers to remain anonymous. But if permission is granted, by the narrator, to use real names, do not forget to use them in the transcript. In addition, introducing the narrator and yourself (the oral historian) or letting the narrator introduce themselves is key, again, if permission is granted, at the beginning of the interview will help the transcriber (if you decide to hire out) to identify the speakers in the audio recording.

False Starts

Oral history is all about recollection of events. Sometimes these events being recalled need a bit of thought. To indicate a change in thought mid-sentence, ellipses come in handy.  Ellipses, which are basically a series of three dots (…), are very useful and are used to indicate an incomplete sentence or train of thought. An example is as below

B:  She said that I should …. Well, I’m not sure what that means …. Let me get my thoughts together.

I:  Sure, no problem.

NB: Ellipses can also be used to show continuation of a thought by a speaker if they were interrupted as shown below.


When an interview has more than two speakers, there is bound to be crosstalk or even interruptions by speakers. When this happens in your oral history transcripts, a dash (-) comes in handy. They are used to indicate that one speaker was speaking but was abruptly interrupted by another speaker as shown below

B: Life is really not that easy nowadays. I mean we have-

L:  What do you mean not easy?

B:  Well, we have-

L:  I mean what is not easy about life?

B: … a lot to deal with.

To show continuation during an interruption or what is formally known as crosstalks, ellipses are used preferably three dots.

Spelt out Words

When words are spelt out in an audio, to show the words are being spelt out, dashes again come in handy. An example of how a dash would be used is as below.

B:  So, you said your name is Joan Rahab Njeru?

J:  Yes.

B:  Could you spell that for me?

J:  Sure. J-O-A-N  R-A-H-A-B  N-J-E-R-U

B:  Thank you.

As you can see J has spelt their name Joan Rahab Njeru. It has dashes between each capitalized letter to show each letter is spoken as an individual letter.

Profanity and the Integrity of the Voice

Sometimes in transcription, it is required to clean up final transcripts however, for oral historians it is completely the opposite. It is necessary to make sure each voice accurately reflects each narrator and not to judge the words being spoken. To construct oral history narratives without profanity or the idiosyncrasies of the narrator’s speech pattern, insults the readers’ intelligence.


Timestamps are a sequence of characters denoting the date and/or time at which a certain event occurred recorded by a computer and not the actual time itself. It involves inserting time markers into the transcript to show where the text is found in a video or audio file. Timestamps are in the HH:MM:SS format, where HH, MM, and SS stand for hours, minutes, and seconds respectively from the start of the audio or video file. There are different types of timestamps, periodic timestamps, paragraph timestamps, sentence timestamps, speaker timestamps and inaudible timestamps which I talk about more in my blog on How Timestamps Improve the Overall Quality of Oral History

Below is an example of a final verbatim transcript, with periodic timestamps, as well as speaker labels. Essentially covering what we have looked at.

Roger Waters CNN Interview

Here is the video link to the transcript


Michael Smerconish: On Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters current solo tour, instead of turning down the politics, he’s upping them up to 11. Last time out he preached against Donald Trump and in favor of Palestine, this tour, twice delayed by COVID and ominously titled This is not a Drill, includes references to police murdering black men, semi-automatic weapons and abortion and giant video screens in the shape of a cross. Waters’ guitarist, Jonathan Wilson has explained why Waters’ tour differs from those of fellow older classic rockers, quote “Even the stones or members of the Beatles, it’s more of a trip down memory lane than it is a current show. The activism, that’s sort of the key to the whole thing.” As a longtime fan of Waters’ music who doesn’t always agree with his messaging, I want to ask him about his mix of performing and preaching. Things got a bit animated. So, here’s the quote as I understand that begins the show.

Roger Waters: If you’re one of those, I love Pink Floyd but I can’t stand Roger’s politics people, you might do well to fuck off to the bar right now, thank you and please enjoy the show.


Michael Smerconish: You might do well to F off to the bar right now. Roger Waters: Right.

Michael Smerconish: At the outset of the show?

Roger Waters: Yeah.

Michael Smerconish: Because?

Roger Waters: Because it’s a really good way to start the show. Apart from anything else it sets a few things straight. It-

Michael Smerconish: Namely?

Roger Waters: Well, it also encourages a lot of the people who have come to the show, um A because they have listened to everything I’ve written since you know, 1965 or whenever I started writing songs (giggles). So, they do know what my politics are and they do understand where my heart is and they understand sort of why I’m there. But maybe it also gives a message to people who don’t want to be there, in which case them f’ing off to the bar is probably not a bad idea.


Except that you never know those people if they sit in a community like my audiences on these shows of This is not a Drill on this tour, there is such a great feeling of communication in that room between me and the audiences and between us combined with all our brothers and sisters all over the rest of the world, irrespective of who they are, where they live, their ethnicity, their religion, their nationality or anything else. Because if This is not a Drill has a message, it is that we have to communicate one with the other.

Michael Smerconish: To the guy who says, shut the f up, play the hits, do you want him … As long as he doesn’t shout it out, do you want him in the arena?

Roger Waters: I do not, not want him there, so long as he doesn’t annoy the people who do understand what’s going on in the arena. I’m, I’m happy for him to be there.

Michael Smerconish: But I’m saying, like, do I have to buy in? Does a, does a person in the crowd have to buy in to the message? I’ve always loved the music.


Roger Waters: Right.

Michael Smerconish: Some, some of the messages I can buy into, and some I can’t. Roger Waters: I’ve only got one message, two strangers passing in the street, by chance two gla, passing glances meet and I am you and what I see is me, that is my message. And that was on Meddle which was in 1970 and basically my message hasn’t changed. I recognize your humanity but I recognize all the Russians and the Chinese and the Ukrainians and the Yemenis and the Palestinians.

Michael Smerconish: Are you an equal opportunity offender on this tour? Here’s why I ask. I remember the last tour, of course I came and watched, very much, you know, about Trump. (music faintly playing) And in the current show, you’ve got a montage of war criminals, according to you, and a picture apparently of President Biden on the screen and it says, “Just getting started.”

Roger Waters: Mmh (agreement)

Michael Smerconish: What’s that all about?

Roger Waters: President Joe Biden?

Michael Smerconish: Yeah. Roger Waters: Well, he’s fueling the fire in the Ukraine for a start, that is a huge crime.


Why won’t the United States of America, uh, encourage Zelenskyy the president, to negotiate obviating the need for this horrific, horrendous war-

Michael Smerconish: But you’re-

Roger Waters: … that’s killing-

Michael Smerconish: … you’re blaming.

Roger Waters: how man … We don’t know how many Ukrainians and Russians.

Michael Smerconish: But you’re blaming the party that got invaded. Come on you’ve got it reversed. Putin, Putin’s at fault?

Roger Waters: Well, that’s … You, you know any war when did it start? What you need to do is look at the history and you can say well it started on this day, you can say it started in 2008, okay? It’s basically … This war is basically about the action and reaction of NATO pushing right up to the Russian boarder. Which they promised they wouldn’t do when Gorbachev negotiated the withdrawal of the USSR from the whole of Eastern Europe.

Michael Smerconish: When you say this, then I have to say, what about our role as liberators? You of all people with your-

Roger Waters: You have no role as liberators, what are you talking-


Michael Smerconish: World War II? World War II?

Roger Waters: You got into World War II because-

Michael Smerconish: You, you, you, you lost your father come on.

Roger Waters: Is Pearl Harbor, Pearl Harbor. You were completely isolationists and that’s sad. That devastating awful day in 1941.

Michael Smerconish: I, I would argue we were always going and that pushed us in. But thank God the United States got in, right?

Roger Waters: Well-

Michael Smerconish: You lost your father in World War II. Thank God the United States.

Roger Waters: Well yeah, thanks to God yeah.

Michael Smerconish: Right? Roger Waters: But thank God the Russians had already won the bloody war almost by then. Don’t forget 23 million Russians died, protecting you and me, from the-

Michael Smerconish: You would-

Roger Waters: … Nazi menace.

Michael Smerconish: Hey and you would think the Russians would have learned their lessons from war and wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine.

Roger Waters: Well, you, you-

Michael Smerconish: Fair? Roger Waters: … with all your reading, I would suggest you Michael that you go away-

Michael Smerconish: (laughs)

Roger Waters: … and read a bit more and then try and figure out what the United States would do, if the Chinese were putting nuclear armed missiles into Mexico and Canada.

Michael Smerconish: The Chinese are too busy encircling Taiwan as we speak, okay?


Roger Waters: They’re not encircling Taiwan; Taiwan is part of China.

Michael Smerconish: Oh (laughs)

Roger Waters: And that’s been absolutely accepted by the whole of the international community since 1948. And if you don’t know that, you’re not reading enough. Go and read about it.

Michael Smerconish: Okay did we solve anything here today? Rogers Waters: This is … No, well yeah, we did. I mean no we didn’t. Because you’re believe-

Michael Smerconish: I mean answer-

Roger Waters: … you’re believing your propaganda, your sides propaganda.

Michael Smerconish: You’re defining it as propaganda.

Rogers Waters: But Taiwan, you cannot, you can’t have a conversation about human rights and you can’t have a conversation about Taiwan without actually doing the reading.

Michael Smerconish: Roger, Roger if you’re having a conversation about human rights, at the top of the list of offenders are the Chinese. Why is it always the Western world? Why-

Roger Waters: They’re in the top of your list.

Michael Smerconish: Why is it always the Western World?

Roger Waters: The Chinese invaded Iraq and killed a million people in 2003. In fact, as far as I can recall, hang on a minute, who of the Chinese invaded and murdered slaughtered and then-

Michael Smerconish: Their own, their own.

Roger Waters: Bullocks.

Michael Smerconish: Okay.


Rogers Waters: That’s absolute nonsense, complete nonsense.

Michael Smerconish: (laughs)

Roger Waters: You should go away and read.

Michael Smerconish: (laughs)

Roger Waters: But read some proper literature.

Michael Smerconish: Hey, my problem is I spend too much time reading your liner notes, okay?

Roger Waters: (giggles)

Michael Smerconish: Thank you for doing this. I appreciate it. Roger Waters: Thank you for talking to me.

Michael Smerconish: All right.

Roger Waters: It’s always a pleasure.

Michael Smerconish: (Laughing) Is it? Okay. My God, you’re such a trouble maker.

Roger Waters: Please don’t call me that.

Michael Smerconish: What?

Roger Waters: My god.

Michael Smerconish: (laughs)


I do hope the above transcript has put into perspective what we’ve discussed in this blog. I also hope this blog was helpful. Feel free to get in touch with any additional questions you may have or if you have any oral history transcription needs you want met.

Remember, always be kind try to stay positive and learn to unwind

Read more: How to Transcribe an Oral History Interview

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