Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Memory and Note-Taking

The annual Valencian Falles festival (in Spanish, Fallas) ended at Saturday midnight in its traditional apotheosis of fire, fireworks and thunderclaps. The biggest thunderclaps had roared all week like artillery barrages. It's a peculiarity of the Valencians that they're brought up to take childish delight in loud noise. The minority who can't take it flee the city for the week. But now calm is restored and it's possible to think again.

On March 7, I posted about how important good ambient and working conditions are for effective interpreting. Unforeseen, the March 17 post relayed Lionel Dersot's experience interpreting at Sendai under very poor conditions. One remark of Lionel's in particular struck a professional chord:
“There is no note, no note taking, in windy, at times snowing environment, forget everything about note taking.”
Expert Interpreters will have immediately recognised the significance of that.

All interpreting requires short-term memory in order for the interpreter to keep in mind what the speaker has just said. For simultaneous interpreting, which is never really quite simultaneous, it's a matter of up to three seconds. Short consecutive interpreting needs longer, depending on the span of the ‘chunks’ into which the original is segmented. Long (or full) consecutive may require a much longer memory span, commonly three to five minutes but up to half an hour or more in extreme cases.

Individuals vary greatly as to the memory retention they’re capable of. There are tales of legendary interpreter prodigies like the Kaminker brothers, who were interpreters at the League of Nations and later the United Nations and the Council of Europe:
“The end of the era of the consecutive system in the United Nations had its glorious moment. The noted Latin-American statesman and orator, Señor Fernando Belaúnde of Peru made at the General Assembly a long political speech in Spanish which was translated into French by one of the famous brothers [Georges and André] Kaminker. M. Kaminker reproduced every significant phrase, every telling pause, every emotional tone and even every dramatic gesture, and, having used no notes at all, sat down amid a thunder of applause."
Indeed André Kaminker had eidetic (photographic) memory. He was undoubtedly helped by the fact that long consecutive was the standard method used in conference interpreting in his time, and so his generation got a lot of practice at it (see Image below).

Interpreters who are mere ordinary mortals, however, need help to remember speech accurately for more than a few seconds, which is the 'natural' span. That help takes the form of the notes they take as they listen. They may even need notes for short consecutive, especially for details like names and numbers. I’ve several times witnessed Native Court Interpreters come a cropper over names, times, etc., because they hadn’t learnt to take notes. Interpretation school programmes usually include a module, sometimes a whole course, on note-taking; and students are taught to bring a suitable notepad with them to their assignments. Taking away consecutive interpreters’ notes is like kicking out a crutch from under them: they stumble. But it can happen, as we have seen, so the Expert Interpreter ought to cultivate memory and never rely entirely on note-taking. As Lionel puts it: ”But there is mind note taking for sure. How to take notes with fingers, a future book.”

To be continued.

Falles. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falles.

Jesús Baigorri-Jalón. Interpreters at the United Nations: a History. Translated from Spanish by Ann Barr. Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad, 2004. See pp. 46 ff. for a biography of André Kaminker. Available on Google Books.

The description of André Kaminker’s feat at the United Nations comes from Lord Gore-Booth’s introduction to Satow's Guide to Diplomatic Practice, 5th edn., London, Longman, 1979.

Image: André Kaminker at work in Paris in 1949. He's the man in the light suit at the far right of the table listening intently to the speaker in the middle. Photo by Nat Farbman for Time, Inc.


  1. I also find Lionels recount extremely illuminating. Swedish military interpreters also has the problem that they are trained for e.g. Swedish and Dari but on spot they end up interpreting from non-native English (all types) and Dari. I would suspect that this is not uncommon in conflict/crisis areas either.
    What I really wanted to ask you was if you have seen this home page: http://cultureandlanguage.net/index.php/voice-of-love-project/

  2. I would think that all interpreters engaged in international military operations need fluency in English these days. As for non-native English, it's a problem in all branches of interpreting. There are varieties of both non-native and native English that even native speakers have problems understanding. I suppose the Swedish interpreters adapt to the local varieties after a while.

    The Voice of Love project is very laudable. I do find it a pity, though, that they're spending a year developing a community interpreter training manual with a heavy editorial superstructure when there are already manuals available – and all for a three-day programme. However, Marjory Bancroft has a lot of experience. Thanks for the link.

  3. Very interesting article, thank you.

    Precisely is my rubbish memory what made me not to choose Interpreting but translation :) I have a good memory, but just a photographic one, so if I didn't had time to imagine the words of the person speaking, whenever I had to interpret what they said, I would just see a blank canvas in my mind :)

  4. Visual versus auditory memory in translators and interpreters: an interesting topic.

    Re "Hacienda me la mete doblada", I read just this past weekend that no lesser genius than Einstein said income tax was one of the few things in the universe that he couldn't understand. In North America, apart from the accountants, there's a whole industry of 'tax preparers' living off the complications, something like asesores fiscales but more specialised.

  5. "No lesser genius than Einstein" in my previous comment should of course read "no less a genius than Einstein."