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.

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

Everyone will tell you to note ideas and not words. But what constitutes an idea? Below is a simple introduction to recognizing ideas which can help in the early stages of learning consecutive interpreting.

What is an idea?/  Well let’s ask ourselves what is the basic unit for communicating an idea in language.Answer: the sentence.And what arethe basic units of a sentence?Answer: Subject, Verb, (Complement, often but not always, an Object)

This may sound simplistic but see how it works in the text below. This is a speech given by Chris Patten to the European Parliament on July 3rd 2000.

The exercise is then to ignore all the padding and additional information and to identify the essential Subject Verb (Object) units that make up the backbone of the speech and seperate them from one another…for example by hitting the ‘return’ key twice.

   In the areas for which I have some responsibility, there were also, as the Prime Minister has mentioned, some important developments at Feira. We took stock of the European Union’s relations with Russia and the situation there, including in Chechnya, in the light of the recent EU-Russia Summit, which I think was regarded as fairly successful. It is too early to judge President Putin’s economic programme; however, our basic message is that a sound programme will be vital to boost investor confidence.    In Chechnya, there have, it is true, been some recent moderately positive developments in response to international and European Union pressure: for example the recent ECHO mission was able to take place and western humanitarian agencies have greater access to the area. The conflict nevertheless continues and we still have considerable concerns. In particular, we want to see much greater access for humanitarian aid agencies. We want to see genuinely independent investigation into reports of human rights abuses, and we want to see a real dialogue between the Russian government and the Chechens. 

The first unit of Subject Verb (Complement) is….

SVC
There….were…..developments

Yes grammatically one can argue about the correctness of calling “there” the subject but you get my drift. It’s a long sentence but all of the rest of the information is secondary and has been tacked onto the basic framework which is ” There…….. were……..developments. “. 

SVC
We….took stock of…relations (with Russia) and the situation there

If we continue to do the same throughout the passage we might arrive at the following. Notice that the ‘sentences’ range in length from 4 – 21 words, but each contains only one S V O unit, only one idea. 

In the areas for which I have some responsibility, there were also, as the Prime Minister has mentioned, some important developments at Feira.We took stock of the European Union’s relations with Russia and the situation there, including in Chechnya, in the light of the recent EU-Russia Summit, which I think was regarded as fairly successful. It is too early to judge President Putin’s economic programme;however, our basic message is that a sound programme will be vital to boost investor confidence. On Chechnya, there have, it is true, been some recent moderately positive developments in response to international and European Union pressure: for example the recent ECHO mission was able to take place and western humanitarian agencies have greater access to the area.The conflict nevertheless continues and we still have considerable concerns. In particular, we want to see much greater access for humanitarian aid agencies. We want to see genuinely independent investigation into reports of human rights abuses, and we want to see a real dialogue between the Russian government and the Chechens. 

Try doing the same thing with a number of texts. Compare with your colleagues and see if you agree on the divisions.

How does this help in consecutive? Imagine each S V O group above as section of your notes. On one page of your note pad you have room for two sections of notes, in which you note the Subject Verb and Object diagonally across the page. The sections are seperated by a horizontal line. 

Note the passage above in this way…. 

Now you are ready to try doing the same thing with the spoken word. Listen for the idea, the ‘who is doing what to who’. Note only that. At the initial stages it would be a mistake to try and get all the detail. Work on the essence first and the detail will come with practice.

You don’t, either, have to be very literal and take exactly the same words or elements as the speaker has used as their SVO. Indeed it is a demonstration of real analysis and understanding when you start noting the SVO groups with more freedom, for example you can note

  1. Note shorter synonyms.
  2. Note a different SVO group with the same meaning.
  3. Noting only two of the three elements in SVO.
  4. Make several short sentences out of one long one.

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