Some notes on a consecutive interpreting

I still follow a bunch of interpreters on twitter despite the fact that I don’t interpret at the moment. One of the things which cropped up yesterday was a query on the subject of developing a set of ideograms for consecutive interpreting, and there was a discussion. Twitter being what it is, plus with them having broken conversation threading in some small but significant ways, I wanted to put my thoughts together here.

When I first took interpreting lessons – it was a minor option in my first degree – it was in the days when young women still did secretarial courses that involved learning shorthand. I’m aware (sadly) that a lot of younger people have never even heard of shorthand so basically, it was a symbol based note taking system that enabled secretaries to listen to their bosses, note what they had said exactly, and transcribe it later. The word “exactly” is pretty important – this was pure transcription. At least one of my co-students at the time had taken a year out to be a secretarial student (at the time they were handy qualifications to have which basically ensured that even if the shooting for the stars job didn’t work out, you had a saleable skill that ensured work and more importantly, income) and she struggled immensely with interpreter note taking.

There is a key difference between taking shorthand to reproduce a document exactly later, and taking interpreting notes to reproduce the content of a speech immediately, and that is the relationship between your notes and your memory. Typically, the shorthand replaced you having to remember all that detail, and the consecutive notes supported you remembering all that detail.

So a core component of developing a note taking system for consecutive interpreting relates to how you use it to support you actively remembering things you have heard. We are not in the business of creating a transcription writing system, or an alternative alphabet as it were.

Each interpreter is different and each interpreter will develop a system to fulfill their needs depending on a number of different factors: a) what environment they are working in b) what sectors they tend to work in c) how their memory works and d) what’s easiest for them to use without thinking. A large set of interpreting note symbols can be hard to maintain plus makes demands of your memory which really you want to be applying to the speech you’re going to be interpreting.

This is something that my computer programming friends would find difficult to understand but it isn’t like computer programming in that there isn’t a fixed set of symbols which every interpreter can apply (and thereby have everyone’s notes be completely interoperable). We humans are not machines.

When I did my training first, and when I did my CPD about a year ago, there were a couple of key tools given as starting points, and that is to look at identifying the logical flow of a speech. Deconstructing the speech and how it fits together. The last set of exercises I did focused on not noting content at all, but only noting the logical links between parts of what was said. This includes things like

  • Because
  • However
  • And

There is a whole lot of them and I am pretty sure they are listed in the interpreting text books.

When I was developing tools for consecutive interpreting, I took a mixed approach to things. I’m not always a fan of calling them symbols or ideograms because they aren’t always either. Some of mine were fixed abbreviations. To this day, if I am writing notes for a speech or a presention, you will find Bcs or Hwr (in other words, despite not interpreting I use consecutive interpreting notes when I am giving a speech or presentation myself).

One of the other things I did was look at symbols I had from other fields which I could apply without too much learning as it were. Maths is a handy source of things like addition, subtraction. I added computer science later != is not equal, not the same as. I was interested in stickers on the backs of cars when I was a teenager and with a European focus, I already knew the abbreviation for every single country in Europe so that was a handy way of dealing with those. There are generic things to watch for like changes in the states of economic numbers – how do you indicate that a number is trending upwards or downwards? How do you add emphasis to these things? For example “Inflation rose” versus “Inflation rose sharply”.

These are generic problems which frequently need to be addressed and possibly the way to identify the common problems which need to be supported by a notetaking system is to review a lot of speeches designed for that purpose.

One of the benefits which I feel younger interpreters have now over my generation is that they have a lot of access to listen to professional interpreters doing what they do on a day to day basis. While I was thinking about this yesterday, it occurred to me that most of this was simultaneous interpreting. I am thinking about live streamed broadcasts from the European institutions (Parliament in particular, but Council also) and the United Nations also I think. But I cannot recall ever coming across examples of consecutive interpreters at work. As I think it’s useful for inexperienced people at the start of their career to have access to seeing more experienced (and good – this goes without saying) colleagues doing their job, this is maybe a pity.

I’m going to close out with links to a couple of resources on the subject but before doing so, my personal view is that consecutive interpreting is a skill that benefits from training with people who know how to teach people how to interpret and developing a notetaking system is a key component of that. CPD may be available via AIIC or your local university which runs interpreting training)

Note-taking for Conference Interpreting by Andrew Gillies – it looks like there is a new edition of this on the way – Amazon

Analysis exercises for consecutive interpreting – Andrew Gillies – Youtube

Symbols Dos and Don’ts – Andrew Gillies – Youtube

La Prise de notes en interprétation consécutive – Jean Francois Rozan – it looks like this is increasingly hard to find, but a university with an interpreting course probably has a few copies. – Google books

(In English was available as Note-Taking in Consecutive Interpreting but I cannot find a useful link to that at the moment)