I’ve learned that the ideal time for doing recordings is between 5pm and 7pm, after people have finished their work for the day, but before the heavy rains start for the evening. Since the only thing separating the people sitting in the living room from the sky is a sheet of corrugated metal, the sound of the rain hitting the roof makes recording all but impossible. I’ve pulled it off in a pinch though, and actually managed to get some surprisingly good-quality audio. I’ve also gotten pretty good at setting up recording environments in the dark, since at Ken & Janet’s farm the power goes out whenever it rains, and at Gladys & Charles’ farm they don’t turn on the solar-powered batteries until they start preparing dinner, usually around 8pm.
Despite devoting this past week to translating the recordings I already have, recording opportunities have continued to present themselves. The other night I finally was able to record about 2 hours of conversation surrounding dinner (mouth noises while eating and allǃ), and I was thrilled to get that much natural conversation. Tonight one of Gladys’ neighbors also came over to record a story, and wound up recording about 10 songs together with Gladys as wellǃ Since one of the songs was traditionally sung during the female circumcision ritual, I asked Teresa, the speaker, to explain the song’s role in the ceremony to me in Ekegusii, and so I recorded a great conversation between Teresa and Gladys talking about that. In short, this week saw the completion of everything I could have hoped to record for this trip, providing me with an array of data types: traditional stories, personal histories, conversations, songs, explanatory discourse, and even a proverb or two. In future trips, I’d love to record the several hundred proverbs that Kennedy & Gladys included in the back of their dictionary. Helen, an absolutely sweet woman who teaches kindergarten and provided me with about 20 stories, also said she’d love to record a collection of riddles with me as well. I think putting together a collection of short recordings like proverbs and riddles would be invaluable both for research and language revitalization purposes. In terms of research, it’s a realistic goal with a defined scope, with data that’s fairly homogenous, and likely to include lots of rare and archaic words. In terms of language revitalization, the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project would love to be able to put recordings and explanations of all the proverbs and riddles online, and so doing all these recordings would directly enable that. So I’m beginning to mull over the possibilities of doing something like that during my next visit, possible next summer (funding willing).
The vast majority of my time this past week, though, has been devoted to slogging through the stories we’ve recorded with Gladys, one phrase at a time. It’s incredibly tedious work, but Gladys has been absolutely indefatigable and insists on getting as much done before I leave, taking breaks only to prepare meals, after which she’ll come out to the porch where I’ve setup my little workspace and say, “Ok Nyakundi, time for class!”, and we’ll resume translating.
To give you an idea of what this involves, I first have to take the recording and segment it into manageable chunks, usually just a short phrase at a time (what are called ‘intonation units’ among linguists). I have special software (ELAN) that allows me to do this in just a couple minutes. Then Gladys and I listen to each phrase and write it down in Ekegusii. We’ll typically listen to each phrase a dozen times, unless it’s some really frequent phrase, which at this point I’m able to write down and translate myself. The first few passes we focus on just making sure we heard the words right. Then I write an initial guess at what I’m hearing, which almost always needs further correcting. A huge obstacle in this kind of work is that people will pronounce things different in isolation versus in a sentence. And in a language with tone like Ekegusii, this is especially problematic, because the tones often change depending on the context of the sentence. So I first start by writing the sounds I hear, without worrying about tone. Even this isn’t as easy as it seems. It can actually be very difficult at times to distinguish between the /e/ and /ɛ/ sounds (bait vs. bet), or /o/ and /ɔ/ sounds (cot vs. caught, though not all English speakers make this distinction), so the next few listening passes are usually to make sure I haven’t missed any of the vowels. Next I’ll go through and listen for tone, at first with Gladys saying things word by word, and then by asking her to say the sentence as a whole, and comparing that to what I’m hearing in the recording. With the Ekegusii phrase now written more-or-less accurately, we then work together to translate the phrase to English. This too is not as easy as it seems, because it’s important to capture all the meaning of the Ekegusii sentence in a way that will allow me to piece together what’s going on in the language later. This usually means writing a translation that isn’t really grammatical English. This is actually fine, since most speakers tend to translate literally and word-for-word anyway – a huge help for me when doing analysis. That’s one phrase. Then we move to the next. When we’re done, we have a nice transcript in both Ekegusii and English, although both will have to be transliterated later into text that speakers can read. Because I use the special characters of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to write the Ekegusii, it needs to rewritten (transliterated) into the way of writing that people use every day when writing the language, a version that doesn’t involve any tone marks or special vowels, etc. In addition, I’ll also need to write an edited English transcript that’s understandable to English speakers. But for the purposes of my research, the IPA transcription and literal translations is extremely helpful.
All in all, it takes about an hour to transcribe and translate just 1 minute of text. Despite the slow going, and despite both Gladys and I coming down with a cold for a few days, we’ve managed to transcribe and translate a total of 42 minutes of traditional storiesǃ I couldn’t be more thrilledǃ It’s shaping up to be an excellent corpus of Ekegusii discourse, that I’ll be able to use for all sorts of research projects in the future, and that the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project will have as a rich cultural archive.