Is there a note-taking system I can learn?

You don’t have to invent your own note-taking system!

If you are studying conference interpreting at some stage you will undoubtedly hear, or be told, „that no two interpreters’ notes are the same” and quite possibly, that „every interpreter has to develop their own note-taking system”. The two ideas are often taken to mean the same thing, however, and this is not quite true.

No two interpreters’ notes are the same, and interpreters cannot read each other’s notes with any degree of accuracy – this much is true. However, it is not true to say that every interpreter must develop their own system for note-taking from scratch (and that by extension no systems for note-taking can be taught or learnt.) 

If we look carefully at a several experienced interpreters’ notes and ask each interpreter what is going on in a given section of notes what we see is, that, through the fog of apparently distinct note-taking systems, a whole array of very significant similarities appear – diagonal notes, margins, links, lines between ideas, a limited number of modulable symbols, verticality and more. Most of these fundamentals can actually be traced directly back to the father of note-taking in consecutive, Jean-Francois Rozan and his seminal work La Prise de notes dans l’interprétation consécutive. Others like noting subject-verb-object have been around almost as long (see Ilg’s explanation of Andronikov’s suggestion) and have been consolidated in books like Roderick Jones’ Conference Interpreting Explained.

If you’re starting out it would be a good idea to make the following the basis of your note-taking system.

These suggestions (or indeed any of the books that suggestion note-taking systems) should allow you to benefit from ideas which have served generations of interpreters very well while leaving plenty of room to incorporate your own ideas and solutions.

Note the underlying meaning not the word usedRozan Part 1.1
Diagonal notation (Shift)
Note the Subject, Verb and Object of each idea diagonally across the page. Separate each idea with a horizontal line across the page.
Separate ideas on the page Often equivalent to a sentence or Subject-Verb-Object group ideas are divided from one another on the page with a horizontal line. Interestingly Rozan did not explicitly suggest this in his book, but he did do it in all the example notes he gave and his example has been widely followed.)
VerticalityNoting vertically, from top to bottom on the page, rather than from left to right is the distinguishing characteristic of Rozan’s system, and one that you will find in almost all interpreters’ notes. Together with diagonal notes (shift) it goes to make up sections of notes that read from top-left to bottom-right. Click here to see what this looks like Rozan Part 1.6
Links …are essential to the cohesion of a speech and should be noted on the left of the page.
Symbols… must be clear and used consistently. Rozan Part 2.2
Rules for abbreviationClear, efficient (time-saving) and consistent rules for creating abbreviations. Rozan Part 1.2