We Say What You Mean

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Back to school, back to the interpreting textbooks (but this time, with a twist!)

As summer draws to a close, many conference interpreters are turning their thoughts to the autumn working season. For those of us who also work as interpreter trainers, this is also the time of year when we start dusting off our teaching notes to prepare for the latest intake of students starting on interpreting programs in the fall. For some trainers, these teaching notes don’t always include textbooks or other formal writings on conference interpreting, as textbooks have not always played a major role in how our profession is taught in some parts of the world. However, my own experience has convinced me that certain written works on interpreting can serve as useful guidance to underpin the teaching of certain skills. Today I am going to talk about one such work which has guided my teaching for the past several years, and which has just been released in a revised edition: Andrew Gillies’ Note-Taking for Consecutive Interpreting: A Short Course (2nd Edition).

Gillies’ Short Course, which was first published in 2005 by St Jerome and has now been re-edited by Routledge, has already become quite well-known in interpreter training circles in the decade or so that it has been with us. Any “top ten” list of interpreting textbooks is bound to include this note-taking guide by Gillies (who is also the author, by the way, of Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book, published by Routledge in 2013, which to my mind also belongs on every trainer’s bookshelf). Before I look at what the Short Course offers, and what is new in this second edition, let me say that this is the type of book that can be useful not only to trainers and students working through an interpreting training program but also to any interpreting practitioner who has ever struggled with their consecutive notes – and that no doubt includes most of us! So even if you aren’t involved in formal interpreter training, please read on…

Gillies’ Short Course takes the oft-stated argument that “notes are personal affair, so they can’t be taught” and proves it wrong, once and for all. The author offers a clear, step-by-step approach to acquiring an effective note-taking technique for consecutive interpreting that is a boon to anyone – trainer, student or otherwise – who is trying to make sense of this of this challenging, sometimes even mystifying skill. The Short Course is organised in such a way that anybody with an interest in the topic can pick up the book and work through the various chapters, which are organised logically and include explanations, exercises and samples, to end up with a workable note-taking technique. Practitioners who struggle with their notes can also use the Short Course to help diagnose where their difficulties lie and correct their technique to make it more effective.

For all these reasons and more, the Short Course has already proven itself to be a useful addition to any interpreter’s bookshelf. So what is in the second edition that is different from the first version? My work with the textbook over the past month or so has shown me – reassuringly – that all the bits that I liked most about the first edition are still there, just in slightly improved versions. I am referring to the sections on speech analysis, the structuring of the notes on the page, and the exercises on symbols and links, which I have worked through with various generations of students. So the textbook hasn’t changed so much in the second edition as to be unrecognisable to those of us who know and love the first edition.

The first change that jumps out in the new edition is the fact that the book’s structure has been rearranged slightly to make it even clearer and more logical than that of the original publication. While both editions take the reader from the basics of speech analysis and recognising and splitting ideas through to the fine-tuning of notes, reviewing key components such as structure, symbols and links along the way, the second edition seems to follow a logic that is just that much more intuitive (not to mention more clearly explained in the table of contents). Another major change can be found in the material used in the exercises, which has been updated to include more recent speeches (all of Gillies’ exercises are based on authentic speeches and include the necessary bibliographical references). But what I perhaps like the most about the new edition is an extra section that has been added at the end that presents an overview of note-taking guidance according to other authors. So whereas my students and I used to have to dig up references to Rozan, Matyssek, Jones and Oblitas on our own to (quite literally) “compare notes”, we now have all of this handily compiled for us at the back of the textbook. Thank you!

Of course, no book review would be complete without a discussion of what might not be fully in line with one’s expectations, and there is one such minor comment that I can make about the Short Course. The second edition, like the first, makes very sparing use of scanned versions of real, handwritten notes, preferring instead to present stylised typewritten versions of what would normally be taken down using pen and paper. While I understand the choice on the part of the author, it inevitably leads every year to a situation where I have to explain to the odd student or two that no, Gillies is not teaching a keyboard-based note-taking system and that you shouldn’t be trying to reproduce these notes keystroke-for-keystroke on your laptop screen. For those who are completely new to consecutive note-taking – as many beginning students are – it can be hard to make the mental leap from the notes we see typed on the pages of the Short Course to what they might look like when written in a notepad. But this is probably something that is best tackled at the trainer end: when we first show students the book, we just need to explain as clearly as possible how the illustrated notes are to be understood, to minimise confusion.

To conclude, I can say that the upcoming “back to school” season will have an added twist for those of us who use Gillies’ Note-Taking for Consecutive Interpreting: A Short Course in our training. I look forward to exploring the second edition in more detail as I prepare for the new academic year – and I encourage any and all colleagues with an interest in note-taking to do the same!

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