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.

What’s Your Problem?

At the start of the training seminar, which took place about a month into the consecutive training module, I asked students to write down the three biggest problems that they were having with their notes*. Contrary to what one might expect, they didn’t all say “I need more symbols” or “I’m not writing fast enough”.

Here is the list of the problems that they named (in brackets is the number of students who mentioned that problem, from a total of 13):

Problems related to presentation (11)
Difficulties distancing themselves from their notes (6)
Hard time deciphering/reading back notes (4)
Dealing with abstract topics (3)
Noting down technical vocabulary (3)
Listening and writing at the same time (3)
Identifying the important parts (3)
Avoiding repetition (3)
Writing too much/not enough (3)
Identifying and writing down links (3)
Dealing with fast delivery (3)
Getting the right amount of detail (1)
Symbols (1)
Verbs/tenses (1)
Abbreviations (1)
Numbers (1)

Of course, there is some overlap between the categories, and I have to say that the comments themselves were much more detailed and thought-out than the list I have given here (e.g. “I need to write less, but I’m afraid to trust my memory. I’m worried I’ll forget things”). However, this summary reflects students’ general concerns.

It’s interesting to see that the details we teachers tend to harp on the most – such as links, symbols and verb tenses – were at the bottom of the students’ list of concerns. I would like to think that this is due to the fact that they had already been dealt with effectively in class, but I fear that this is not the case. The disparity may be a sign that the focus sometimes taken by teachers is not always fully in line with the real concerns students feel – which, as far as I can tell, is much more related to the need to juggle many tasks at once, and with presenting a coherent finished product at the end of it all.

Where does it all fit in?

After a brief note-taking session, where I had students working in pairs to analyze each other’s problems on the basis of the list we’d just drafted together, we took the analytical process a step further. I asked them to place the different issues we’d identified along a linear structure reflecting the interpreting process itself. The idea here was to help us see exactly where the process was breaking down.

Basically, I put up four headings on the chalkboard (yes, the chalkboard, I’m so old-fashioned sometimes) and asked them to place each problem under the right heading. The headings were SOURCE TEXT, INTERPRETING PROCESS (which we decided should include the analysis, synthesis and translation of the message), NOTES, and TARGET TEXT.

What ensued was a surprisingly animated discussion, including many disagreements about where exactly each issue should be placed along the continuum. Problems related to repetition, for instance, were placed by some squarely at the feet of the original speaker (for including redundancies in the message), while others thought that repetition was more an issue of analysis (with the interpreter responsible for separating the wheat from the chaff), or possibly note-taking technique (should you note down repeated ideas or not?) or even presentation (remembering to eliminate repetition even when it’s reflected in your notes). Similarly, the use of technical vocabulary was understood by some as a problem of comprehension, while others said that the problem lay not so much in understanding unfamiliar terms than in finding a way to get them down on the page.

In this second part of the seminar, a number of additional problems were named that hadn’t come up in the first part. The chalkboard ended up quite a mess by the end. In fact, it looked like this:

Please excuse the handwriting!

It’s quite likely that the whole business will only make sense to the people who were actually present while the board was busy being scribbled up, but just in case you’re curious to know what it said and can’t read the writing in the photo, it went more or less like this:

(Lack of) structure
Identifying verbs Identifying elements to note
Identifying links
Role of memory
Identifying important parts
Tuning out/ information overloadAbstraction
Listening while writing
Turning pages
Writing lessListening while writing
Distance from notes
Deciphering notesRepetition

To sum up, let me just say that whether or not my students learned anything from the seminar (which I hope they did), I for one obtained a lot of insight into where exactly they are experiencing problems in their note-taking. This will hopefully help me to deal with the various challenges that I explained at the beginning of this post. So perhaps you shouldn’t feel quite so sorry for your poor consecutive interpreting teacher after all …

* Permission was obtained from my students to share the content of the note-taking seminar, including their anonymous comments, here on my blog. Many thanks to them!

Read the companion post:

Spare a Thought for Your Interpreting Teacher (Part 2 – Simultaneous)

14 thoughts on “Spare a Thought for Your Interpreting Teacher (Part 1 – Consecutive)

  1. Inspiring! Me temo que es un problema recurrente, el de no saber identificar a veces cuál es el problema en las notas de consecutiva, ¡gracias por el post!

  2. Thank you for another great post! Sometimes it is really difficult to tell what went wrong in students deliveries and if not guided (like you did), they may end up not really knowing or realizing what is the problem. What I remember from my classes (and hated the most) were the same old three comments from trainers, that it is the notes (too much/too little, too chaotic), the language knowledge (or more precisely the lack of it) or just the jitters, nervousness (to the point that “this might not be the profession for you”?!)… It really did not help, maybe it only made things worse. I believe it is great to guide students through this process also by exploring all these aspects and possible problematic areas – for them and for the teacher, to prepare suitable exercises to solve them.
    Thank you again, I might use some of your ideas in the future!

    • Thanks for the input! I have to confess that I have been caught making those three comments, too (well, maybe not so much the last one …).

      The first isn’t productive if it’s not backed up with specific help, because there’s no point criticising students’ notes if you can’t offer tips on how to improve them. The second may be useful in some cases, where it is pretty clear that the language skills need extra work to be brought up to scratch (it does happen, although most students are unwilling to admit it). And the third might be something that you feel you need to discuss with the odd student – but certainly not in class, in front of classmates.

  3. Excellent post, Michelle! Curious that “Getting the right amount of detail (1), Symbols (1), Verbs/tenses (1), Abbreviations (1) and Numbers (1)” appear to be of less concern for our students…

    Fear of not being able to remember information… so true it happens to them! But we need to be like coaches and remember them they did excellent jobs in “memory”. It’s all about the 4 phases…

    • I agree, it is curious – but also encouraging – that they weren’t all that worried about symbols and the like. That would imply they’ve already made it past the first hump and have recognised that that’s not what it’s all about.

      Of course, interpreters have to become good at self-assessment, which is another good reason to ask them to diagnose their own problems in an exercise such as this one.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Diana.

      As you may know, I’ll be spending the next few months looking at issues related to training interpreters. I’ve made a conscious decision to try to talk about this subject while minimizing specific references to the actual students I am working with this year. It’s important to me that they see that their privacy is being respected. This post is somewhat of an exception, but I made sure that I had the permission of the students present to share what we had done in class.

      I plan to continue addressing issues that come up in class, but in a more generic way, throughout the rest of year. Of course, I may get students’ permission again to talk about a specific session, if the need arises. Allow me to say that they really are a very good group, and generally game for whatever I come up with! 😉

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  5. I have a nagging question in this context that I hope you won’t mind me asking. It seems I have much less trouble with simultaneous interpretation than I do with consecutive interpretation (using the special note-taking techniques that we’ve been working with – at home and in class – for the past 3 months). Unfortunately, as you no doubt know, passing the EMCI exam requires that you pass both the consecutive and simultaneous interpretation parts of the exam (and it seems unlikely that I’ll ever manage to pass the consecutive part). Does your experience suggest that someone can actually be a good conference interpreter without being a good “consecutive interpreter” as well?

    • The orthodox response to your question would be that no, you can’t be a good interpreter without mastering consecutive technique, because being able to do consecutive is a reflection of the fact that you have internalised all the skills involved in the interpreting process (i.e. you can juggle all those “balls”).

      Many wonder why exams at, say, the European institutions continue to include a consecutive component, when the work itself is largely in simultaneous mode. I can only assume that the EU institutions continue to subscribe to the line I described above. (Minor note here: accredited interpreters can choose to add a new language by doing two simultaneous exams; however, the entry exam for new interpreters always consists of one consec and one sim per language).

      Anyway, practically speaking, I have found that students who really struggle to learn consecutive will ultimately have a hard time making it in the booth as well (those initial feelings of competence in the booth are often more related to the Four Stages of Learning that I discussed in another post:

      But before you despair completely, let me add that three months is not all that long in terms of learning the skills. Give yourself more time to get the hang of it! And always try to focus on the essentials instead of getting bogged down in the details. It may well fall into place yet. And talk to your teachers about your concerns. They are the best placed to be able to advise you on what you need to focus on.

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