Note Taking: An Interpreter's Journey

Photo by Aaron Burden

I developed my note-taking technique like many other community interpreters have: in the heat of the interpretation, out of necessity. After serving as a linguist for the US Army for 5 years, my first civilian job was as a "Translator" for a large school district. The transition from linguist to translator seemed natural, and I was excited to start a new career. However, as is common for many translators (or interpreters) in education, the role required that I do more than translate documents, I was also expected to interpret. Thus began my note-taking journey.

Names & Numbers

My first community interpreting experience was during a meeting announcing a new school program. I must admit that I didn't even know what I didn't know. In my preparation, I found that names and numbers were most difficult to recall and interpret accurately, and that note taking is one way to ensure accuracy. At the meeting, I was interpreting simultaneously and had pen and paper ready, but taking down names and numbers proved almost impossible. Later in my career, I had an opportunity to learn from experts in the field at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where my professors not only emphasized the importance of jotting down names and numbers while interpreting consecutively, but also advised that we practice jotting down names and numbers while interpreting simultaneously and/or partner with our booth mates to help each other. As my note-taking technique evolves, one thing that never changes is that as soon as I hear a name or number I jot it down, immediately.

Subject, Verb, Object

Something that I also learned early in my career was that note taking often got in the way of my interpreting because the information was disorganized. I found myself thinking I could not read my notes, when in fact, I could read them, but could not decipher them. I was trying to do too much at the same time and everything was competing. To help me overcome this challenge, my research first lead me to a video by Lourdes De Rioja on YouTube titled Anne's Notes Explained, where Anne explains how she organizes her notes in a "diagonal" where the subject is in the upper left, followed by the verb in the center, and the object in the bottom left. The same technique was later taught to me by other interpreter trainers and by my professors at MIIS. I must admit that this is a technique I am continuously working to perfect. Even after years of intense and deliberate practice, as I hear a message, it is sometimes difficult to quickly identify the parts of speech. However, this level of analysis is key to interpreting the message accurately, and still plays a big part in my regular practice.

Keep It Simple

It may seem obvious that, since interpreting is highly tasking, we should find techniques that are simple and helpful. However, when I first started my note-taking journey, the more research I did the more complicated my note taking became. I had list after list of symbols and abbreviation techniques from different instructors and books. It got to the point to where I preferred to put my note pad down because trying to take notes was distracting and hindering my attentive listening. As I made a transition into healthcare interpreting, a mentor emphasized the need to keep my notes simple, to only write down what I needed to write to jog my memory. However, while writing as little as possible may be useful for short utterances, I needed to be able to jot down a little more to accurately and completely recall 3-5 minutes of information. Your note taking can be further simplified by using a combination of symbols for very common concepts, like lines, and a single short-hand technique, like omitting vowels, to quickly capture more details.

Note taking is a valuable tool that interpreters can use in consecutive and simultaneous modes. However, the most valuable lesson my note-taking journey has taught me is that it is a tool to augment and jog our memory and that it requires attentive listening to help us ensure accurate and complete interpretations. Without strong memory and attentive listening skills, even the most elaborate note-taking techniques will not suffice.

Please share your personal note-taking journey in the comments section below.