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.


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.

The Interpreting Student’s Reading List

One should never underestimate the value of book learning. It’s true that almost everything can be found on the internet these days (more on that in next week’s post), but that doesn’t mean that the printed word no longer has anything to offer.

If you read my post on general knowledge, you will already know that I am a big fan of books as a form of background reading and as a way to broaden your knowledge base. Today, I want to look at “how-to” books on interpreting techniques which I consider to be must-reads for anyone who is studying conference interpreting.

The One and Only

I’ll come clean right now: Roderick Jones is my hero. My former students know it, and my future ones will as well. If you only read one how-to book on interpreting in your whole life, let it be Conference Interpreting Explained. Buy it, read it, mark it up, sleep with it under your pillow. And when your teachers give you some bit of advice that you feel needs corroboration, look it up in Jones’ book – chances are, it’s there!

Conference Interpreting Explained is available new from the publisher St Jerome, or used on Amazon. Trust me, it is the best 18 quid (20€) you will ever spend!

The Classic

You can’t talk about how-to books on interpreting without mentioning La prise des notes en interprétation consecutive by Jean François Rozan, originally published in 1956 and considered by many to be the definitive guide to consecutive note-taking. As far as I can tell, the original French version is now out of print, but thanks to the efforts of our friends in Poland, there is now an English and Polish translation available. At 35 zloty (about 8€), it’s a real steal.

The New Kid on the Block

Andrew Gillies, interpreter trainer at ISIT Paris, coordinator of AIIC Training and the man behind the Interpreter Training Resources website and Facebook page, has somehow also managed to find the time to write books on interpreting (note: the “new kid” moniker only applies because Gillies came after Rozan and Jones, but that doesn’t make his works any less relevant). In addition to being responsible for the English translation of Rozan, Gillies is the author of Note-Taking for Consecutive Interpreting: A Short Course. A little birdie has told me that there may be a new book coming out soon, so watch this space for news of that.

But wait, there’s more …

Of course, those aren’t all the books that have been written about conference interpreting technique. There is a much more complete list of recommended reading, complete with book reviews, to be found on the Interpreter Training Resources site. Also, the inimitable Nataly Kelly has prepared a list of books for interpreters and translators right on Amazon – and you can purchase them all with just one click of the mouse!

However, I have chosen to highlight just a few titles in this post, because I know that if I tell my students to go out and read dozens of books on interpreting, they may feel overwhelmed and end up not reading any at all. If I insist, on the other hand, that there are a handful of books which they absolutely shouldn’t miss out on, they might just go out and read one or two of them.

Of course, if readers have favourite books of their own that they’d like to share with me, and don’t see them on the lists above, please let me know in the comments section. I’m always on the lookout for fresh material!

In my next post, I am going to look at online resources for interpreting students. I will be holding a workshop on this very topic this coming Friday, where I have asked students to come with some favourite links of their own – so my hope is that in an upcoming post, I’ll be able to share with you what I’ve learned.

Portrait of a Conference Interpreting Course

This week, classes started on the Master’s in Conference Interpreting at the University of La Laguna. By now, students will have received the course outline and schedule, met their fellow students and some of their teachers, and will have a rough idea of what to expect over the next nine months.

Since the next several entries in my blog are going to discuss various aspects of interpreter training using mainly this course as my reference, I thought it might be useful to share some of this basic information with my readers. What I’m going to do today is offer a general outline of the Master’s in Conference Interpreting (or MIC, as we like to call it). This “portrait” of the course will be more like a pencil sketch than a full-blown, life-sized portrayal, but my intention will be to add colour and detail to this sketch over the next few months.

The MIC started this past Monday and will run for 33 weeks, stopping only for Christmas, Easter and a couple of bank holidays. The first four weeks will be dedicated exclusively to memory exercises, after which there will be a five-week introductory module for consecutive interpreting. The introduction to simultaneous technique comes in the last week of November, and from then on classes will alternate between consecutive and simultaneous technique. The (non-eliminatory) mid-term exams for consecutive are held in February and the mid-terms for simultaneous are scheduled for April. The finals will be held in the first week of June.

Each week, a different topic will be the focus of the speeches and exercises given in class. This is to help students broaden their general knowledge and learn preparation and terminology-building skills. Topics range from such “light” matters as tourism, education or culture in the first few weeks to the “heavier” fields of science and technology, energy, trade, fisheries and agriculture nearer to the end of the course.

Every year, the MIC also includes a trip to Brussels to visit the EU institutions, student mobility exchanges with other Master’s courses in Europe, and classes and lectures by visiting trainers from the EU, UN and private markets.

A Week in the Life of the MIC

Classes on the MIC run from Monday to Friday, starting each day around 9 a.m. and running until lunchtime (which in Spain means around 2 p.m.). An average week will include classes in consecutive and simultaneous technique from all of the students’ passive languages into their active languages, as well as a lecture on the European institutions (first term) or Economics (second term). This year, I will also be running a monthly lecture series that I launched last year which looks at different aspects of the theory and practice of interpreting (you will be hearing more about that in future posts, I can assure you!).

Afternoons will generally be spent on self-study, either individually or in groups. This will be guided by teachers in the beginning, but students will increasingly be responsible for organising this self-study on their own.

The Student Body

The MIC generally accepts 16 to 20 of the 100-odd candidates who apply to attend the course in any given year. This year, there will be 19 students. The majority of students at the MIC work in the Spanish booth, but other booths (such as English, German and Italian) have also been trained at the MIC. This time around is no exception: I will have four English booth students to work with (picture Michelle rubbing her hands in anticipation)!

The passive languages offered on the course vary from year to year and depend on the students’ language combinations. This time, we will have German, French, Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese and Greek; in other editions, the MIC has covered passive Polish, Slovene, Dutch, Danish, Czech and others.

An interesting note: the vast majority of students on conference interpreting courses are women, but this year there will be five men on the MIC, which means they will represent more than 25% of the total. That’s got to be some sort of record! Without wanting to reveal any personal details of individual students, I will add that the age range for this crop of students is between 22 and 41, with five students over the age of 30 (if you’re wondering why this matters, read this post I wrote on when to study). Also, the academic backgrounds of three of the students are in fields other than language studies or translation/interpreting.

One Portrait Among Many

Now that I’ve told you about the Master’s in Conference Interpreting at the University of La Laguna, I want to hear from you about other training courses. I know many of my readers either study or teach on similar courses around the world, or have done so in the past, and what I would like to know is what those courses are like. As you were reading the above description, what did you notice was the same as or different from the way things are done on your course? Please share your observations in the blog comments section below (or on my Facebook page, if you prefer).

On a related note, Lourdes, the conference interpreter responsible for the video series on interpreting to be found on YouTube at Lourdesaib, just recently interviewed one of the senior instructors on the MIC. Here’s the video, for those readers who might have missed it: