How do you teach note-taking for consecutive interpreting?

It’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string’ questions. Consecutive interpreting involves listening to a speech delivered in one language in front of an international audience, taking notes and then giving the same speech in another language, making sure it is as close to the original as possible in terms of content, delivery and style. The activity is taught and practised through memory exercises, listening comprehension, summarising, abstracting and note-taking.

There is some very useful literature on note-taking for consecutive interpreting aimed both at trainee interpreters and at interpreter trainers. The most frequently cited works are Rozan, J.F. (1956) Note-taking in Consecutive Interpreting; Jones, R. (2002): Conference interpreting explained; Gillies, A. (2005): Note-taking for consecutive interpreting. A review of these key works by Michelle Hof can be found here.

Even though note-taking constitutes an integral part of the interpreting process, it may detract interpreters from active listening. This means that the note-taking task involves filtering and ruthless selection, as well as translation, so that the speech can be then delivered in another language. Because of the bilingual nature of the task, shorthand would not be effective in helping to reproduce the original speech verbatim and thus eschew the process of filtering, as shorthand is based on standardised symbols of sounds, not meaning (Valencia, 2013: 11-12).

More importantly, the role of interpreters’ notes should be to “relieve memory” (Jones, 2002: 42) and to outsource tasks that cannot be performed by memory alone. In other words, notes should be an aide-memoir, not a schematic representation of the entirety of the speech. Because of the mutual dependence of memory and notes and the highly contingent nature of memory, notes are highly personalised to the extent that “no two interpreters will ever produce an identical set of notes” (Gillies, 2005: 10) for the same speech. At the same time, the majority of speeches tend to be formulaic to the extent that they “present the interpreter with a limited range of the same problems, for which effective solutions have already been worked out and are applied by many, many interpreters” (ibid.). This means that despite the contingent and subjective nature of notes, there exist basic principles of note-taking in consecutive interpreting that can be taught (Valencia, 2013: 14).

Despite this, there is no one-size-fits-all note-taking system, which poses a particular challenge for learning and teaching. The basic principles mentioned abover are supposed to become “internalised” (Gillies, 2005: 10) and ultimately individualised to follow a personal style as well as the requirements of any given speech, speaker or setting. This is easier said than done.

The current learning experience involves teaching students some basic note-taking symbols and abbreviations of terms that occur in most speeches, as well as strategies in noting down numbers, links, tense and how to separate ideas. Learners practise interpreting speeches based on no notes, minimal notes, only symbols, only numbers etc. They are also encouraged to share their notes to see examples of different note-taking styles and even to try to reproduce the original speech based on other people’s notes. However, they do not get an insight into how different styles of notes are produced – how quickly the interpreter takes notes, how much of a time lag there is in producing these notes, how selection of information takes place, which language is chosen for note-taking etc. Class time is too limited for carrying out these activities and for helping learners develop the creativity required to assimilate the techniques taught and make them their own.

Maybe uploading pre-recorded videos of real-time note-taking on a virtual learning environment such as Blackboard would be useful for learner practice. The videos would not be prescriptive, but they are meant to trigger reflection and generate ideas. It would save class time and create the space necessary for students to be creative, experiment and develop a personal note-taking style. It would also offer an insight into the professional world by demonstrating different types of real-time note-taking. The opportunity for reflection is important, as students can go back and deconstruct the process while exploring and developing their own efficient system. In this way, they are encouraged to be “active makers and shapers of their own learning” (JISC, 2009: 51).

It takes months, even years of experience and practice for interpreters to develop their own efficient, tried and tested system of note-taking for consecutive interpreting. Pre-recorded note-taking videos may enhance the learning experience through experiential and authentic learning that helps to demonstrate how memory and note-taking work together in producing a semantically accurate and fluent speech in the target language. It would be useful as a follow-up for learners to upload videos of their own note-taking and share with their colleagues their own reflective process, justify their selection choices, symbols, techniques etc. A wiki for sharing ideas and practice material could then be developed.   Class time and setting are simply too limited for such a task.

4 thoughts on “How do you teach note-taking for consecutive interpreting?

  1. I teach American Sign Language interpreting and we also have research about the value of consecutive interpreting and how it is more reliable than simultaneous interpreting. The problem, of course, is it is very difficult to take notes and then still refer to those notes while using your hands to interpret. In a setting where people are seated at a table it could work, however in many of the settings where I interpret, there is no way to utilize note taking. For this reason I much prefer simultaneous interpreting.
    I wonder if any one else who works between a spoken language and a signed language has any suggestions for how some form of note taking could be beneficial.
    Thank you

    • Hello Colleen,

      Thank you so much for your comment, it’s a really interesting question. I don’t know anyone who has used note-taking in this way myself, but the chances are someone has at some point!

      The context would need to be right though and note-taking is mostly used for conference interpreting I believe. So if it were to be used there would need to be a clear comunication with clients that the best way to do the interpretation is consecutively and have agreement on that. I can’t see this working in community interpreting (although much of that happens consecutively anyway, due to the shortness of the interactions). However I imagine some situations would benefit from this style.

      I would imagine that a table would be necessary, as you say. How else could one look at your notes, intermittently.

      I googled (for interest) the concept and found an interesting article by Debra Russell about consecutive interpreting by ASL interpreters;

      I’m not sure that notetaking is covered but court interpreting is mentioned as a possible context – which makes sense in terms of accuracy.

      I will leave it there.
      Heather Mole

  2. Dear all,

    Regarding this topic, let me introduce you my book Técnicas de interpretación consecutiva: la toma de notas. Manual para el estudiante (Ed. Comares, 2012). It is a short, practical, step-by-step guide on the learning process of consecutive interpretation targeted to students and young professionals. With just around 80 pages, it is currently used as course manual in many universities in Spain and abroad. For the moment it’s just available in Spanish.

    According to the professors that have contacted me after using it, it is being of great help in class. You can find some reviews of it in the following links: (in English) (in Spanish) (in Spanish) (in Spanish)

    Hope this helps!
    Clara Bosch

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