Thursday, June 7, 2012

Expert Interpreters and Notepads

While I was away, Barbara Jasinska commented from Poland on the post with the photo of two diplomatic interpreters (April 22):
"Having a notepad doesn't make you a professional interpreter. Some amateurs will use it as well because it's simply practical."
She has a point. In the set-up shown in the photo, however, it's more than just a notepad. There we have two interpreters, both with notepads of the right size at the ready and both seated in the correct position. The notepads are an indication of expertise but not the only one.

I agree that some Advanced Native Interpreters (the ones Barbara calls 'amateurs') know how to take notes. In my experience, it's because they've already learnt note-taking for some other purpose. The first time I ever had to do long consecutive in public, it was of a speech at a banquet. I'd had no interpretation training, yet I intuitively had the good sense to make some notes on the only 'pad' available, which was the back of the menu. How was it that I knew to do it and how to do it? It was because I'd had a long training in summarising, starting with précis-writing at school, which was a standard exercise in my time, and then of note-taking at lectures at university. One of my best consecutive interpreting students – he's now a senior United Nations official in Geneva – had previously acquired experience as the secretary at meetings. Neither he nor I started out using a system of symbols such as Rozan's; that came later, and then only partially. In short, note-taking is part of a complete education for working life in our society, and "summary/précis writing is a useful skill for everyone."

On the other hand, I've seen Native Interpreters stumble over even very short consecutive passages because they hadn't been told to take notes or hadn't come along with the right equipment. ('The right equipment' means a flip-over shorthand secretary's pad and two good pens because, in a long meeting, one may give out.) It's particularly embarrassing when inexperienced court interpreters have difficulty remembering names, numbers, etc.; those are the first things they should note. And most students in interpreter training courses at university or elsewhere need some instruction and exercises in note-taking, bearing in mind that the translation for conferences should be shorter than the source. Yet I've also witnessed a 15-year-old untrained schoolgirl produce a stunning expert performance at a simulated meeting.

Consideration of note-taking leads to some deep questions. On the one hand there's the outward notation for it: the abbreviations, symbols, speedwords, etc. On the other hand, hidden behind that, there's the human mental ability to select and extract information, to synthesise it and to summarise. We schoolchildren already needed the last for our précis exercises; grown academics need it for writing abstracts; and so do the bilingual Précis Writers at the United Nations meetings in New York, who don't share the high profile of their interpreter colleagues but who are likewise highly skilled Expert Translators.

Thank you, Barbara, for the comment.

Interpreting notes. Wikipedia. Click here.

United Nations Language and Comunications Programme Learning Service, OHRM. Summary and précis writing, Course Code E4W45/1.

From the blog Travels without my spaniel. Click here.


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