Splitting ideas

“The first rule of consecutive interpreting is that the real work must already have been done when you start reading back your notes: the text, its meaning and the links within it, must have been perfectly understood.”

Jean-Francois Rozan

The beginning of note-taking?

This page describes two exercises that are very useful when you start learning to take notes. The exercises are designed to lead you towards structured notes, but will also require you to analyse the source speech properly. They will also promote memorisation (because of the better analysis you do).

What is an idea?

For the purposes of note-taking we’ll use Subject Verb Object as the basis of each idea. That is the smallest group that tells us Who Does What. It is also usually the smallest useful unit in language.
For more about different definitions of “idea” in interpreter training follow this link.

Exercise 1 – highlight SVO

This Stabilo advert shows us a great example of how to fish the most important elements – the Subject, Verb and Objet, out of a longer text.

Let’s go through the speech transcript below and see if we can find, and highlight, the SVO groups. (The text below is a speech given by Australian Minister David Little Proud in August 2020.)

Look, over 100 years ago our forefathers put on a map lines that formatted our states and since then, over that 100 years, regional and rural Australia has evolved past those – we become integrated in terms of agricultural production systems, in terms of our community, in terms of our healthcare. And what we’ve seen from COVID-19 is that some of the arbitrary restrictions being placed on regional and rural Australia by the states have had serious impacts on that integration.

Exercise 2 – note SVO

This second exercise is to go through the speech transcript and see if you can find, and then note on a separate sheet of paper, the SVO groups.

Look, over 100 years ago our forefathers put on a map lines that formatted our states and since then, over that 100 years, regional and rural Australia has evolved past those – we become integrated in terms of agricultural production systems, in terms of our community, in terms of our healthcare. And what we’ve seen from COVID-19 is that some of the arbitrary restrictions being placed on regional and rural Australia by the states have had serious impacts on that integration.

Forefathers… put… lines…

You’re probably thinking that if you made those notes you wouldn’t remember the rest of that longish sentence is. Interestingly when you choose what to note, and what not to note you remember far more of what you didn’t note down. Also remember this is just the beginning. As you learn more about note-taking, and about how your memory works, you can add more detail into your version of the speech.

The recall process might go something like this…. “Forefathers”, how long ago? 100 years… “put lines”, where? On a map? So? Lines on maps delineate countries, or here states. And so on

Rural Australia… evolved…

We… integrated… agriculture & community & healthcare…

Restrictions… impact… integration…

You’ll notice there are several objects in the second to last SVO group. See verticality for more on how to deal with that.

Have a look at what that might have looked like as a set of notes

Remember these notes are not the final product. This is very early stage note-taking and there are many improvements to come, eg. Abbreviations and symbols.

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

What is an idea?

The following is taken from Note-taking for Consecutive Interpreting by Andrew Gillies, Routledge, 2017, and explains something about what interpreters mean when they talk about “ideas”.

The most oft repeated thing you will hear as a student interpreter is “note the ideas and not the words!”
But what is an idea? And how can we recognize them so that we can reproduce them properly in interpretation? You might say that a whole speech boils down to one idea, but will that help us in our note-taking? Each word might seem like an idea, but they won’t all be as important as each other.

The first thing to understand is that when interpreters or your teachers use the word “idea” they may be referring to any one of three  different things. For the purposes of this book and in order to be clear and consistent, I wish to keep them separate.

First of all there are the “ideas” that we are going to deal with in this chapter, that is “parts of the message” (Thiéry, 1981), those which tell us “who did what to whom”. These “ideas” we will carry on calling “ideas”.

Secondly there are “ideas” described by Rozan (1956), meaning the underlying meaning of a word or expression as being more important than the actual word(s) chosen to represent that meaning. For example the words declare, say, tell and express, can be considered synonymous: they have the same underlying meaning and would all be noted with the same symbol as a result. These underlying meanings we are going to call ‘concepts’.

Thirdly there are many interpreters who consider ‘ideas’ to be what we called ‘sections’ in the previous chapter.

Noting the idea rather than the word

This extract is taken from a new translation of Jean-Francois Rozan’s La Prise de notes dans l’interprétation consécutive. It is a short passage that has defined the teaching and practice of consecutive interpreting since it was written 50 years ago.

La prise de notes en interprétation consécutive, Rozan, Jean Francois, 1956 Geneve . Georg. To see a longer extract click here.

1. Noting the idea rather than the word 

Take any French text and give it to 10 excellent english translators. The result will be ten very well translated texts, but ten very different texts in as far as the actual words used are concerned. The fact that we have ten good translations, but ten different texts, shows that what is important is the translation of the idea and not the word. This is even truer of interpretation since the interpreter must produce a version of the text in another language immediately. He must be free of the often misleading constraints that words represent. It is through the analysis and notation of the ideas that the interpreter will avoid mistakes and a laboured delivery. Example: Let us take the following, from French into English: 

„Il y a des fortes chances pour que…../ There is a very good chance that…”

If we base our notation of this expression on the words, the key word is chance. If we base it on the idea, it is probable.

The notes will have to be read 20 minutes – even an hour – after the idea was originally expressed. In the first example it would be very easy to make a mistake. Having noted chance the interpreter might, if the context allowed, render it „there is a chance that” or „by chance”. If on the other hand he noted probable the mistake cannot be made. The issue of style is also dealt with in the second example where one would automatically say (interpreting into English), „It is probable that”, or „it is likely that”, or „in all likelihood” whereas in the first example even if the interpreter had correctly recalled the idea that the word chance represented he/she will be a prisoner to that word and might easily produce a gallicism . Example:

„We should try to live up to….”

It would be absurd to note the word „live” and it would greatly increase the risk of making a mistake. Although it would seem to be very different from the original it would be more appropriate to note in French, for example, „ a la hauteur” (in english ‘to be up to’). This is the result of analysing the idea behind what is said and noting it idiomatically in the target language. It would be just as useful to note 

be =

…representing being equal to , which could very easily be read back idiomatically in intepretation (ie. „a la hauteur in French”, „to be up to in English”).

Whenever taking notes the interpreter must concentrate on the major idea and how this can be noted clearly and simply (preferably in the target language, although this is not essential).