Practising note-taking

Practising note-taking

A good combination of proper note-taking skills and a well-trained short-term memory are indispensable for high-quality consecutive interpretations. Although the notes that interpreters take on their notepad (or lately also on their tablet) can only support their memory, advanced note-taking based on an individual mix of symbols and abbreviations will take your consecutive interpreting skills to the next level. Note that none of the suggestions I make are in any way binding for interpreters – I have seen professionals take notes in clusters or mind-maps, so anything is possible!

The basics

Before looking into how to effectively practise note-taking, I would like to mention some basics first. If you are not a beginner, feel free to skip this section. 

Many interpreters structure their notes into two columns – a small one on the left for subjects, connectors and other highlights, and the rest of the information in the wider column on the middle/left side of the page. They structure their information in a diagonal way to maximise the amount of information they can process with only one glance at the page – after all, eye contact with the audience/listeners is very important and underlines your confidence in consecutive interpreting. 

(Good) statements have a golden thread and individual thoughts, ideas or segments that are presented. In order to make the delivery phase easier and clearly structure the notes, interpreters often add horizontal lines between these thoughts, so they can easily decipher what belongs together. One idea or thought is not necessarily one sentence in the original

How to practise note-taking

In order to develop your own note-taking technique and optimise it, you might want to start with some tried and tested approaches. 

  • When I started out, I gathered a list of basic symbols, based on ideas I found online or learned from trainers and fellow students, that I thought would come in handy. A great source for symbols has been Matyssek, this online source of inspiration or simply the Google image search.
  • I created a set of symbol memo cards, like the vocabulary cards I used to work with in school, and started memorising the symbols, so they would come to my mind quicker even when feeling stressed during consecutive practice.
  • Start with one topic and practise several speeches on this same topic. This learning-by-doing approach is really useful to get the hang of a certain set of symbols that you want to integrate into your array of symbols.
  • Depending on how far you have progressed in your interpreting training, you might want to start practising with one language only: listen to a slowly presented speech in your native language, focus on how you take notes and deliver the speech in the same language.
  • Repeat the same speech several times to improve your approach. You are likely to recognise where in your note-taking you could have done better, so do the same speech again and focus on optimising these aspects. 
  • Start with slow, simple speeches, just like you would do for simultaneous interpreting and gradually increase the speed and level of difficulty.
  • If you have particular trouble with a certain speech, do not shy away from printing the script and deliberately taking notes while reading the text instead of listening to the audio. This way, you reduce the pressure that the audio causes and you can focus on the optimum way of note-taking for certain sentence structures, elements of the speech etc.
  • If you want to quickly expand your range of symbols, it’s best to start deriving new symbols from existing ones. Add dedicated indicators to your basic symbol and create new meanings.

Pro tips

  • Fold the last paper on your notepad and add some terms that are likely to come up during the assignment, but for which you neither have dedicated symbols nor want to spell them out everytime they come up
  • If a thought continues on the next page, highlight this at the end of your page, and partly flip the page over during the delivery phase to be able to see the rest of the thought

Last but not least: less is more – never forget that your notes are merely supposed to support your short-term memory. Never try to write down every adjective and underlying tone you heard. Instead, also train your memory, you will be surprised how capable our short-term memory can be.

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