The Power of Notes: The Role Note-taking Plays in Consecutive InterpretingIntroductionWithin the scope of translation studies, interpreting takes a position almost as important as written translation. While the activity has been practiced since the first attempt of communication between people speaking different languages, only recently has it developed into an academic discipline and been regarded as a field of study. As one of the most classic forms of interpreting, consecutive interpreting is defined as “the process of interpreting after the speaker or signer has completed one or more ideas in the source language and then pauses while the interpreter transmits that information” (Russell, 2005). This form of interpreting featured with a note-taking technique stretches across a wide range of working settings from liaison or dialogue interpreting in community-based or public-service context to formal conference consecutive (Pöchhacker, 2011). As some scholars argue, note-taking and cognitive memory are inseparably linked in consecutive interpreting. For instance, Hella Kirchhoff (1979) proposes a theory of ‘parallel storage strategy’ – meaning ‘cognitive storage in memory and material storage in notes’.
Daniel Gile (1995) models these two major phases of processing: the ‘listening and note-taking phase’ and the ‘speech production phase’ (p. 178). Others believe note-taking is secondary to the interpreter’s conceptual processing as is shown in Sylvie Lambert’s (1983) depth-of-processing experiment. In light of previous research on note-taking and cognitive memory, what I wish to achieve in this research is to specifically elaborate on how note-taking functions in the process of consecutive interpreting so as to testify to the validity of the previous scholars’ accounts on note-taking. With findings from interviews with three professional interpreters, I summarize the role of note-taking in consecutive interpreting as 1) reinforcer of the cognitive memory; 2) facilitator of the formulation of target-language discourse; and 3) psychological alleviator of the interpreter’s cognitive load and time pressure.Methodology Applying a qualitative method of research, this paper gathers data from 1) interviews with three experienced interpreters; and 2) observation on authentic notes jotted down by interpreters and note-taking systems proposed by some interpreting training workbooks. Two of the interviewees are my instructors at my home university in China, who are trained interpreters with years of interpreting experience.
The third one is a certified legal interpreter at the Los Angeles Court. Due to the interviewees’ occupied schedules as well as the difference of time and space, the interviews were conducted via voice call and email. Interview questions were designed to reflect the interviewees’ opinions on how their notes help them interpret; how they prioritize between note-taking and memory retention; the latitude in note-taking; as well as the principles they adhere to in the process. While the interaction between the interviewer and interviewees presumably discounts in this way, structured questions were presented to the interviewees and they had sufficient time to reflect on the questions before answering. Additionally, with the consents of two of them, I acquired some images of their notes. Together with several workbooks and previously established note-taking theories, a wealth of interesting results can be observed and discussed. Discussions and Analyses of the ResultsFollowing Daniel Gile’s (1995) ‘Effort Model of Consecutive Interpreting’, the interpreter’s task is performed in two phases as previously mentioned. In phase one, short-term memory operations and note-taking take place at the same time; and in phase two, what is performed are long-term memory operations and note-reading, which facilitate the final production of the task.
What the research results show roughly relates to this theory, and thus I will apply it to the following discussions.By analyzing the interview results and observing notes acquired, I summarize the three major roles note-taking plays in consecutive interpreting: 1) reinforcer of the cognitive memory; 2) facilitator of the formulation of target-language discourse; and 3) and psychological alleviator of time pressure and cognitive load.Reinforcer of the cognitive memory As is previously stated, note-taking plays an auxiliary role in supporting cognitive memory, yet it is an indispensable part in consecutive interpreting. In this part, I will demonstrate how the technique helps to reinforce the cognitive memory, or in Gile’s account, short-term memory operations in the following aspects. The first point to make is symbolization. All of the interviewees included symbolization as one of the major principles in note-taking.
One of them said: “Notes should be brief, symbolized, well-structured that reflect the logic of the original speech.” As to reasons for that, the answer I got is “It simplifies writing and thus saves time.” In the same vein, in Kevin Lin’s interpreting workbook, Field Interpreting (2004), one of the note-taking principle proposed is jotting down as many symbols, abbreviations and lines as possible and as few words or characters as possible. As the time that interpreters have to process information is pressing (not to mention they also need time to comprehend the speech), they are not able to note down everything they hear, as it is impossible for a human being to achieve that task. The interpreter has to properly allocate the precious time between note-taking and cognitive memory (or listening and comprehension). In this case, a good note-taking strategy allows better performance of short-term memory.
That is to say, symbolized notes make it possible to save as much time as possible. On the other hand, symbolized notes also show the interpreter’s good mastery of the source-language speech, which in turn reinforces his cognitive memory. To begin with, one has to perceive the message conveyed by the speaker before putting down symbolized notes. That being said, while noting down information, the interpreter is, at the same time, comprehending. For example, as one of the interviewees stated, he would draw a simple tiny umbrella if the speaker said ‘protect’, ‘preserve’, ‘shelter’ or the like.
He has related his understanding of the information with a tangible entity. In this case, a visualized image is provided to bridge the source-language speech and the target-language discourse to come, in which the note can trigger his shortly stored memory of this particular message. Provided he noted down the message he heard in full writing form of the source language, the particular chunk of memory may not be triggered as impressively in his mind, because human beings are generally more sensitive to symbols than words. A less effective situation could be that he was just jotting down what he heard without processing, and thus more time needs to be distributed to the second phase of formulating his discourse. To elaborate more on that, one of the instructors in the interpreting program I participated in suggested that trainees could force themselves to take notes in the target language so as to reinforce the comprehension of the source-language speech more effectively.
This suggestion once again proves that note-taking serves to reinforce cognitive memory whatever the form being taken. Apart from symbolization and noting in target language, another interesting fact is that interpreters would immediately cross off the notes once they finished interpreting what the speaker delivered in a consecutive turn (The speaker and the interpreter take turns to speak in the consecutive interpreting form). As is explained by one of the interviewees, the deletion of notes is always the last step in a turn of speech. This is for reminding the interpreter not to confuse with previous notes which he has already finished interpreting and thus preparing for the next turn of interpreting, because the notes are no longer useful since the interpreter will not be able to retain his short-term memory for long.
The cross-off of notes serves as a signal of the ending of this turn and the beginning of the next one. This interesting phenomenon once again proves that note-taking functions as the reinforcer of cognitive memory in the sense of highlighting the starting and ending point of a section of short-term memory.Facilitator of the formulation of target-language discourseComing to the second phase of Gile’s Effort Model (1995), the final production of interpreting is achieved by the cooperative working of long-term memory operations and note-reading.
This section analyzes how note-taking helps to facilitate formulating the interpreter’s delivery in the target language. The point to address here is the structure of the notes. Gile (1995) states in his model: “When notes are taken according to a few simple layout rules, the layout itself can be hypothesized to act as a visual stimulator of memory regarding the logical structure of the speech.” (p. 179) One of the interviewees shared his teaching experience saying, “the structure of the notes should always reflect the logic of the speech whether in source language, target language or a combination of both.” He said in his example that most students who are in the rudimentary level of interpreting training frequently face the difficulty that they cannot read what they note down, which often results in memory failure. “It is due to lack of large amounts of note-taking training that they have not yet formed clear structures for their notes and their notes are just a bunch of unrelated, unsystematic symbols,” he explained.It is assumed that these students are well aware of the major principles of note-taking and have had the ability to accomplish what is required in phase one.
However, they have difficulty reading their notes after taking them down. What is worse, the inability of note-reading aggravates the failure to stimulate memory. As the interviewee put it, notes taking whatever form, the interpreter has to be aware of what he is jotting down. The ultimate goal is the final production, and note-taking itself has no value of existence if the interpreter cannot read his own notes. The above illustration shows the role note-taking plays as a facilitator to formulate the target-language production. To elaborate, how do interpreters, especially interpreting trainees, cope with the inability of note-reading? The following is an image of a couple of notes by one of the interviewees. He explained that the amount of notes taken depends on the interpreter himself, but there must be a clear structure presented in the notes so that the interpreter will not be confused when reading them.
“It has been long since I have taken these notes, so I don’t remember the speech and I can’t transfer the notes into utterance. But you can still see the notes are well structured. Every cluster of meanings is separated and some of them are in parallel position with an arc connecting them.” To sum up, although note-taking can be highly personalized, the interpreter should make sure that his notes are legible and facilitie the process. The above illustrations prove one of the roles of note-taking as the facilitator of the final production.Psychological alleviator of time pressure and cognitive load As previously stated, there could be various forms of consecutive interpreting from short sentence-by-sentence consecutive to conference interpreting. The consecutive mode has long been existing, but the technique of note-taking has been introduced because of a rise in demand for long pauses in interpretation in the early twentieth-century (Pöchhacker, F.
, 2011). Obviously, note-taking comes into play due to the limited ability of the interpreter to memorize an overload of information in a relatively short period of time. In other words, note-taking makes up for what short-term memory fails to accomplish.Interestingly, in addition to the previously addressed roles, note-taking also helps to alleviate the pressure brought on by the reduced processing time and heavy memory load the interpreter faces.
It is not about how note-taking works, but the action itself can make that happen.One of the interviewees shared her observation of one of her colleague interpreters. “I have seen him taking notes. He was actually not taking down any messages, but drawing random shapes of circles. Maybe he just needed to do something else at the same time to keep him focused on listening.” It may seem paradoxical to say that doing two things at the same time is to keep one’s attention on one thing, but it is true for this particular profession.
In this case, short-term memory alone could achieve the final production. But the interpreter needs a psychological hint that his memory is not only processed in the mind but also assisted by hand.Another observation I made in a field trip to the courtroom is that the court interpreter was holding her spiral notebook and pen all the time, but never took down a single symbol throughout the entire task. In my understanding, she might want to be ready to note down any important message like numbers or names. However, with years of work experience, her short-term memory may have extended to the scale that she could easily get the job done without note-taking. It is the beforehand knowledge of being able to take notes that greatly allows her to concentrate on listening and memorizing.It is common practice that consecutive interpreting can be produced with or without the assistance of note-taking depending on previously stated factors. (Russell, D.
& Takeda, K., 2015) But given the time pressure and information overload the interpreter faces, the action of note-taking simply helps to alleviate the pressure regardless of the content of notes. There must be a psychological explanation for this phenomenon, but that is beyond the discussion scope of this paper. Conclusion and Future StudyBased on previous researches on the relationship between note-taking and cognitive memory, this paper specifically targets at the behavior of note-taking by analyzing interviews with seasoned interpreters as well as observing note-taking practices in the activity. Drawing on Daniel Gile’s Effort Model in consecutive interpreting, the research looks into functions of note-taking in this professional activity.
In accordance with his two-phase model, note-taking performs as the reinforcer of cognitive memory throughout the listening and comprehension process in phase one, as well as the facilitator of the formulation of target-language discourse in phase two, featuring note-reading and long-term memory operations. From another perspective, note-taking itself functions as a psychological alleviator, helping the interpreter cope with the heavy pressure brought by time and cognitive load. All the data I collected in this research provides evidence for the argument that note-taking is indeed secondary to cognitive memory, but plays an indispensable role in consecutive interpreting.Consecutive interpreting has always been a classic mode of interpreting and is becoming more prevalent as cross-cultural encounters thrive in the context of international conferences. Focusing on note-taking, one of the major components of the mode, I wish the research could provide some implications for current studies in translation and interpreting (In particular, I sense that there are more to explore into note-taking as the alleviator of time pressure and cognitive load from a psychological perspective.) as well as for practitioners doing consecutive interpreting.