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Preserving lost Cambodian tales

Brian Badzmierowski / Khmer Times Share:
Matthew Boyd, an intern with the Cambodian Oral History Project, interviews two Phnom Penh residents. Supplied

Leng Theary remembers sitting in the home of an elderly woman in Phnom Penh, listening as she told stories about her childhood during the Khmer Rouge era that she kept a secret for years.

“It’s all this pain she was releasing through the interview, you can see it on her face, all the emotions and also the tone of her voice. It’s something she’s never shared before,” he said.

One of the woman’s young grandchildren stopped playing with his toys and took a seat next to her, absorbed by her words.

It’s a story that may have never been told if not for the Cambodian Oral History Project, an ambitious initiative sponsored by Brigham Young University (BYU) to record and document individual and family histories of Cambodians, especially targeting those aged 50 or older.

The project is the brainchild of Professor Dana Bourgerie, who travelled to Cambodia to initially study the dialects of  the Chinese diaspora in the country in 2014. While conducting preliminary research, he realised many of his interview subjects didn’t know their family histories.

“I was frustrated because I wasn’t getting any good background interviews,” he said.

Bourgerie employed a bilingual Cambodian college student to help with the interviews and found that even his new employee didn’t know his family history.

“I said, well I’m temporarily putting you on leave to get me a story from your mom. Two days later he brought back a story… It was an amazing story and he was taken aback by it. I said ok, you got your job back.”

When he returned to Utah, he approached his school with the idea of reaching out to older Cambodians and trying to persuade them to record their stories. The pitch worked and the Cambodian Oral History Project was born.

The goal was to train family members to interview their older relatives and record their stories. Later, the stories are transcribed by BYU students and Cambodians to preserve both oral and written history.

Rothvanna Soeur is the Cambodian coordinator for the project and trains peer leaders around the country on how to teach young people to interview their older family members.

Soeur said family members are encouraged to gather around for the interviews, and “they often end in tears of love and a feeling of pride in their ancestors”.

Some interviews are conducted without anyone from the project present, and audio and video files are sent in to be transcribed by the team.

“They love sharing things and they love to sit down and tell their children,” she said.

“It’s a really cool experience. We’re creating history, recording their own lives, and sharing it with the world,” she said.

Jeremy Hills, a senior at BYU, was one of the first students to participate in the project. Hills had travelled to Cambodia in 2015 on a mission with the Church of Latter-Day Saints and developed a strong bond with the country and its people.

“You learn the language. You go around and teach people. You learn to love the people and you learn to love the culture,” he said.

When he returned to BYU, he started helping translate and transcribe the interviews.

Theary was also a natural fit to work on the project. She grew up in Kampong Cham province and moved to Utah in 2017 to pursue a master’s degree in public administration at BYU.

“I think that it’s really cool that this project is trying to preserve the histories and stories of the Cambodian people. I know some of the stories about my parents but not a lot about my grandparents,” she said.

The stories range from harrowing tales to light-hearted anecdotes, and all are preserved with enriching Cambodian history.

Some of the reasons these stories have stayed hidden for so long, Bourgerie said, is because many of them are traumatic and some fear repercussions.

Sambo Manara, a history professor at Pannasastra University, said some might also be hesitant to tell their tales because they may have been forced to do immoral things to survive.

“They keep silent because they want to make themselves free from now until they die,” he said.

“If we know what happened in the past, then we know how to make our lives today and make a great future. The past history is a memory for you on how to make the future bright.”

When the project started, the focus was on telling the stories of those living in Cambodia, but Cambodians living in the United States have been interviewed as well.

Jeff Adams, founder of Cobalt, a company specialising in speech recognition software. Supplied

In Lowell, Massachusetts, home of the second largest population of Cambodians in the United States, Jeff Adams, another BYU alum and a speech recognition expert, caught wind of the project and phoned Bourgerie to see how he could help.

Initially, he just wanted to introduce some of his Cambodian friends to the project. But when Bourgerie told him about the thousands of hours of recordings and transcriptions he had, Adams jumped at the chance to collaborate and create a speech recognition software to transcribe Khmer speech to text.

“I said how about we do this together, we build a speech recogniser, and then you can use that to help transcribe the rest of the recordings,” Adams said.

Adams had helped create Google’s Alexa speech recognition software before starting Cobalt, his own language software company. He assigned a Cobalt employee to the project to mentor BYU students and together they started work on a programme that could understand Khmer.

Hills, an information systems major, jumped on the opportunity and quickly found out how complex it is to build such software, especially for Khmer, which doesn’t use natural breaks in speech.

He’s spent countless hours meticulously matching timestamps in the audio files with the written transcripts, which then teaches the software how to recognise the language.

It’s tricky work, but he enjoys it.

“I want to connect with the language and I want to touch base with the people. It’s also good for my career as well,” he said.

The project’s work is still in progress. Thousands of hours of interviews need to still be transcribed as Adams and Bourgerie attempt to create an anthology that will not only re-build family histories but provide an essential reference point for future generations.

Adams expects a version of the Khmer speech recognition software to be ready in a few months and he expects it will have uses outside of the project as well.

“When we’re done we will have helped this project and that will be enough. But we will also then have Cambodian speech recognition that will be available for other opportunities,” Adams said.

 

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