Spare a Thought for Your Interpreting Teacher (Part 1 – Consecutive)

Teaching consecutive interpreting technique is hard. If you think mastering the art of note-taking is a challenge, try teaching it sometime!

I think that part of the challenge of teaching consecutive note-taking is that there is no single “right” way to do things. Some ground rules do exist, of course (see Rozan’s seven principles as a starting point), but ultimately every interpreter will develop his own way to take notes, and – here’s the rub for the teacher – whichever route that takes the student to the final goal must be considered valid. It’s not about leading students down the high road, the low road, the garden path, or even the road less travelled. It’s about helping them explore the terrain until they discover their own personal route to where they need to go.

Country road, take me home ...

Another challenge to the teacher lies in the fact that each student will face different obstacles on the way. If a teacher is to be able to address an obstacle effectively, she first must identify what it is. In the case of consecutive interpreting, this is not always obvious at first glance.

Some students will struggle with comprehension or analysis, others will find they have a hard time getting the ideas reflected on the page, and yet others will suffer with reformulating and presentation. Yet the student’s actual performance in class might not reveal exactly where the process is breaking down. So teachers have to be constantly investigating, asking questions, guessing and second-guessing, and proposing different solutions – and this in an individualised manner, for up to 12 students at a time.

Now, I’m not looking for anyone’s pity, here. The reason why I ask you to spare a thought for your poor consecutive interpreting teacher is that I think that an exploration of the difficulties related to teaching note-taking can ultimately offer valuable insight to those who are learning the technique. To illustrate this, I am going to share with you an exercise I did with my students at a recent seminar.

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Videos on Interpreting: The Masters Series

I’d love to write a post introducing the interpreting profession to newcomers, another looking at the basics of consecutive note-taking, and a third giving tips to students starting out in the booth – but why bother, when there are three excellent videos already out there covering precisely those topics?

I’m referring of course to the videos done by Dick Fleming, conference interpreter and trainer, for Lourdes de Rioja, producer of the Lourdesaib channel on Youtube.  I don’t believe either of these individuals requires an introduction, but just in case there is somebody out there who hasn’t heard of them yet, allow me to do the honours.

Dick Fleming is a former staff interpreter with the European Commission’s DG Interpretation (DG SCIC) and was the organiser of the Commission’s in-house interpreter training course (“stage”) that produced so many excellent interpreters in the years that it was running. He has been involved for many years now in training for trainers as well.

Lourdes de Rioja is a freelance conference interpreter for the European Insitutions and a Key Trainer at interpreting schools in Denmark and Spain. In her spare time (!) she also produces videos on the interpreting profession, which she shares on her Youtube channel and which have proven a big hit amongst the interpreting community (by the way, this channel just got a facelift, so if you haven’t visited it recently, I recommend you check out its new look).

What I want to share with you today is a series of videos that Lourdes and Dick produced together. Many of you will have already seen them, or at least one or two, but I thought it would be useful to bring the three videos together in a single place, for anyone who might have missed out.

The first video in the series, “The eloquent detective”, looks at the interpreting profession in general terms, and draws some interesting parallels between the work of the interpreter and detective work.

The second video, “Consecutive note-taking”, looks at how best to avoid the potential pit-falls of poor note-taking.

By the way, that video has been selected as the basis for discussion at the upcoming Interpreting Journal Club chat on consecutive interpreting. The title for the chat is “Consecutive is dead! Long live consecutive?” and if you have any views about the future (or lack thereof) of the consecutive mode of interpretation, you’re welcome to join the chat tomorrow (more details here).

The third and final video, “Starting simultaneous interpreting”, offers some basic tips to students just starting out in the booth. This was the topic of the training session Dick held with my students in La Laguna this week, and is also related to the Training for Trainers seminar he ran for the ULL’s trainers on Tuesday, which looked at techniques for teaching simultaneous (very useful seminar, it was – I’m still digesting all the information!).

So there you have it, my “Masters Series” of videos on interpreting. Enjoy!

There’s a long weekend starting now in Spain, so I’ll be tuning out for a few days, but I’ll be back soon enough with more interpreter training fun…

Of Notepads and Writing Utensils

Conference interpreters are great conversationalists. If you don’t believe me, invite some to your next dinner party and watch them captivate fellow diners with tales of agricultural missions to slaughterhouses and clever solutions to terminological dilemmas (or read this post on In my words, which illustrates my point very effectively).

Interpreting students, being the quick learners that they are, tend to adopt this gripping conversation style quite early on in their studies. Today, I am going to share with readers one of the favourite topics among students around this time of year: the best notepads and writing utensils for consecutive note-taking.

Before I start, let me say that views amongst practitioners are very divided on this highly important matter, and I have no intention to start World War III by coming down on one side or the other of the debate. I will just briefly explain some of the various options out there, and then tell you (without any desire to convince or convert) what sort of notepads and writing utensils I use myself.

The Notepad

When choosing the type of notepad you will use for taking consecutive notes, the first thing you have to select is the size. Most interpreters will go for either an A4 (letter-size) or A5 (half-size) pad. This makes sense: any bigger than A4 and it won’t fit in your bag, and any smaller than A5 and chances are you won’t see your own scribblings (for an explanation of A4 and A5 paper sizes, click here).

But the decisions don’t stop there: you then have to decide if you prefer coil or bound, lined or unlined or graph paper, with a printed side margin or without, hard-backed or floppy, top-flipping or side-flipping, and any other number of other options that are out there (did I miss any?). Online outlets of major office supplies chains such as Office Depot and Staples offer  several models of notepad categorized by different criteria (page size, binding, lines, paper colour…), so the choices, really, are endless.

However, one key factor, the importance of which is not to be underestimated, is the assortment of notepads you are likely to find available at your local store or airport press shop. One doesn’t wish to develop very exotic tastes, only to discover that one is unable to satisfy them, does one? For instance, I don’t know how many top-bound, unlined, coil A4 notepads there are on the market, but if you decide that is what you need (and many students appear to), you had better have a reliable source for obtaining them.

Personally, I try to have an unlined, top-bound, hard-backed A5 notepad in my bag at all times. They’re easy to find in shops, plus they come in handy for writing grocery lists, jotting down ideas for future blog posts, entertaining the kids during restaurant waits … oh, and they are pretty good for taking consec notes, too.

I would actually prefer to have a coil-bound pad, but for some strange reason, the ones I like are hard to come by. The only A5 coil pads I can find in Spain have graph paper, and when forced to choose, I will take unlined pages over coil bindings every time.

But before I start boring even myself with this recount of my notepad preferences, I will move on to the next topic …

The Writing Utensil

Did you notice that so far I have carefully avoided the use of the word “pen”? This is because I don’t wish to alienate those readers who subscribe to one particular school of thought – which boasts a long lineage that probably goes all the way back to Nuremberg – that says that pencils are to be the note-taking instrument of choice for interpreters (I’m surprised that this particular school doesn’t just go straight for the feathered quill + ink pot option). The argument here, apparently, is that pencils flow better across the page than pens. My counterargument is that these pencil-pushing interpreters should probably try a Bic sometime.

As far as pens go, you have your old standby, the ballpoint, which offers the advantage of being available in pretty much any newsstand, so no exoticism issues there. You also have a broad range of felt-tips that tend to find favour among interpreters.

On this note, let me just say that my colleague Mary caused considerable consternation among viewers recently when she filmed her note-taking videos brandishing a broad-tipped black felt pen (“Is that what I’m supposed to be using? Why didn’t anybody say so?”), until she admitted that she had only done this to make her notes more visible on the screen (“phew!”).

My own pens are a ragtag collection of whatever ballpoints I happen to pick up in my travels, most sporting logos of hotels and meeting venues. I don’t think I have actually gone out and purchased a pen in several years. If I were to invest, however, I would be sure to buy one of those click pens with four different-coloured inks, since it is always handy to have several different colours of ink when evaluating students’ note-taking performance (one colour for the original notes, and a different colour for each student’s work). Since most of the pens collecting in the bottom of my bag are blue-ink only, often I find myself having to borrow other-coloured pens from fellow trainers (and yes, the students as well, as I’m sure they’re thinking right now!) in order to make sense of my own notes in class.

Disclaimer

As students go about exploring the various note-taking options and determining which pads and pens (there, I’ve said it!) work best for them, I would urge them to keep one thing in mind: flexibility is the key. There will inevitably come the day when you are called upon to do consecutive and there is nothing available for you to take notes with except some sheets of loose leaf and a dull pencil (which has happened to me), or worse, a dinner napkin and some eyeliner (which has not, fortunately). So do take the time to choose carefully which note-taking instruments are the best for you, but then be prepared to work with whatever is available.