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.
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)
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:
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:
|SOURCE TEXT||INTERPRETING PROCESS||NOTES||TARGET TEXT|
(Lack of) structure
|Identifying verbs Identifying elements to note
Role of memory
Identifying important parts
Tuning out/ information overloadAbstraction
Listening while writing
Writing lessListening while writing
Distance from notes
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: