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Consecutive Interpreting, symbols, notetaking...



This entry has been delayed a bit for a variety of reasons, mainly due to lack of time, as I've got so much to say on this topic, but also because this is my most dreaded class. For more context on what I'm talking about, skip back and check earlier entries. For clarity, I am a native English speaker that is on the Chinese-English Interpreting and Translating masters course at Bath University, UK. We work in both directions, and I am the only 'foreigner' on the course.


This last point is of crucial importance, as it has naturally set me apart from everyone else on the course. Just not always in the ways I was expecting before beginning this process. One of the most noticeable areas in which my background, different from my Chinese peers, impacted my performance was in the consecutive interpreting class. Unlike translating, which can be done at the safety of your own home, or simultaneous interpreting (aka 'SI') where mistakes can be forgiven due to time constraints and the high-pressure environment, consecutive interpreting (CI) is the most unforgiving and most difficult part of the job, as it requires high quality intepreting of complex topics. This of course runs counter to what most people believe, and when one of the course instructors said this at the beginning of the course, I found it difficult to believe him. But he was right. And there are two main reasons:


1. You must understand everything. 1-2% non-comprehension is natural, 3-5% is acceptable, 5-10% is just about workable, but anything more and you lose the ability to accurately infer (yes these are arbritrary numbers, but I'm basing such estimates off my own experience this year). If you don't understand, you can ask the speaker. But 9/10 they will just repeat the phrase you didnt understand word for word, or if they are kind enough to rephrase, the chance you will still not understand a concept you don't even know in your native tongue is 'too damn high'. And I'm the kind of person that goes red in the face when they dont get it. The speaker will also think that your job is easy, as they have to stop for you and 'wait' for you to catch up. As a result, the speaker often speaks much quicker than normal, use more complex terms, and will sometimes even forget to stop for you in the bits they consider 'easy'.


2. You must use a notetaking system. If someone says you dont need symbols or shorthand, just write down the main details and youll be fine...you know they are almost certainly a bad consecutive interpreter. There are simply too many details to remember in a live speech. You must find a way to take down more information than you can possibly remember. In our final exam this was 8 minutes of speech without any break. We then had to deliver the speech in the target language, hoping to also reach an ideal length of 7-8 minutes in our own delivery.


This skill was the largest hurdle for me to get over (and I still havent to be honest), and it was the biggest difference between me and my peers. Nearly all the other students were coming into the course with a knowledge of a notetaking system, having taken courses in it back in China in order to prepare for the MA in Bath, or having previous undergrad experience in interpreting. Either way, from day one the teachers were calling us up to the whiteboard to 'show off' our own personalised notetaking (with each student having their own unique ways of taking down 5 solid minutes of statistics speeches, or symbols for taking notes on sustainable energy sources...). Consequently, I never had the chance to formally study this skill on the course, and this is the only area where I felt short-changed in my training on this MA.


The first point was manageable, I just had to improve my listening comprehension. I have watched A LOT of news and public speeches in the last year to improve this. While I am watching, I actively ask my brain at the end of each sentence 'can you repeat that sentence back in Chinese? Are you hypothetically able to tell the person next to you what it means in English?' If the answer was 'yes' or 'pretty much' then I keep watching, keep listening. If the answer is no, I pause, search and take down all the words, listen again, add the words to a 'new words' deck in anki, then continue. Rinse and repeat for the rest of eternity.


But the second point has been so difficult to deal with. While I was able to understand 99% of an English speech, there was too much information and too little time to write everything down. And yet, the person next to me was drawing pictures of little people and arrows everywhere, intermixed with shorthand chinese characters all over the place, then would stand up and deliver a near identical speech in English, far better than my own English! What do you do in a situation like that? Well I sat down with a friend and we ran through a basic set of maybe 150 or so 'concepts' that could be given symbols (see below), and began to learn them by heart. Gradually my notetaking did get better. But then I came across an additional third reason for why CI is so difficult:


3. Our course is bidirectional, so I was not only required to interpret from Chinese into English (based on scruffy, incomplete notes), but also from English into Chinese. It was at this point where I realised why symbols were so useful. They sit in between the solid words and grammar of language, they represent the ideas and concepts that have yet to be given body by a particular language. So you can use one system to take notes from two (or more) different source languages. For example, if I write the words 'your country' down, when it comes to referring to my notes during speech delivery, I will naturally look down at this and blurt out '你的國家‘. But what if it should have been '貴國'? What if the original English sentence was 'the development of your country is important for the global economy' and thus the use of 'your' in the Chinese is totally redundant? Using notetaking, you dont need to worry about the difference between expression in different languages. You can take the concept of 國/country and write it as 囗 (a commonly used shorthand symbol in notetaking). Once conceptualised, you can look at it and express the idea naturally and uninhibited in either language. A symbol's usage can be expanded across your whole system, eg. I can write the phrase "the development of your country" as "'dev". By extension, the whole sentence becomes something like: "囗'dev=!>O" (where ! is important, > is 'to, affect, influence' and O represents global, all over the world). 囗 can be used not just for country, but also - 囗° =...國人(°=person), 囗al (national), 囗ty (nationality), 囗z (nationalize). etc. To get a real flavour of what CI notetaking looks like, I've posted some pics of my own (bad examples) below. In this way, you can write down more information at higher speeds, with higher clarity and accuracy, all while avoiding 'Chinglish' (or 'Englese'...?) pitfalls.

So, now we know that notetaking systems can dramatically increase the amount and the accuracy of information one can take down at the speed of natural speech delivery. And we also know that it can reduce the amount of Chinglish one might otherwise say when reading notes written in longhand in the source language. And so that leads me to my last area I wanted to mention. The required quality of output in the target language. Unlike SI, the quality of CI sits closer to written translation in terms of quality. One must be able to understand the original speakers intentions, 'translate' it into notes, then produce a coherent stream of thoughts and ideas based on the notes, where the original speech is often reordered and reworded (like in written translation) in order to better mimick the ways of speaking in the target language. Some students were AMAZING at this. In fact I was in awe on an almost daily basis. That being said, I don't believe the ability to do this is something 'innate'. It obviously requires significant cognizant ability, but these skills have clearly been trained for years and years...and years. Although I am still yet to be able to perform at a professional ability in this area, I have seen myself make positive progress and believe if I really dedicated maybe another 5 years to this I could reach a very high standard.


That being said. As it stands, my ability in notetaking is still rudimentary. In the end, it didnt matter how good my comprehension was, or even how good my actual oral language abilities were, the notation 'filter' in the middle of the CI process consistently stopped me from producing good output language. I mean, I've never heard myself speak such strange English before! We're talking saying things like 'this food good eat' if I wasnt paying 100% attention to the notes I was reading.


And at this point I would like to say, I strongly, strongly recommend the course at Bath, as the course instructors are fantastic, and surely among the highest qualified in the world to teach such skills. A caveat should be noted for native English speakers: a prerequisite for the course should be a prep course in notetaking for native English speakers, and this should be explicitly stated on all interpreting course details (as all the Chinese speakers had all done this in China, without me knowning until after the course had started...). The course instructor of the MATBI course, Miguel Fialho, has absolutely blown everyone on the course away. His 普通話 is phenomenal, perfect tones, better spoken than any of the Chinese students in the class, and most importantly he is incredibly humble and understanding. You will see him on CCTV whenever there are meetings between the Chinese and Portuguese governments (he is half British, half Portuguese, and also does Chinese-Portuguese interpreting......). He. Knows. Everything. Pretty sure he has learnt an entire encyclopedia off by heart in three different languages. Jane is his equivalent for the Chinese students, and her English is far more eloquent than my, often ending up in me taking notes on how to speak better English after listening to her speeches! Dr Kumar is highly knowledgeable in economics and politics, is ultimately responsible for the excellent course structure and content, and most importantly, is really funny, so that really made things a lot easier when you're in high stress environments.




what my notes at the beginning of the year looked like. I was using a pencil, writing everything down longhand, and getting totally confused. I often ended up giving up and just trying to recite everything I'd just heard in one language in the other.




What my notes looked like by the end. You can see that for complex terminology, you can write down the word, assign it a number, then just write the number when the term is used. The red is for marking mistakes when going back and comparing notes to the original speech.




Practicing symbols. good god.


OK I'm done for today, next blog entry will probably be more geared towards some thoughts on written translation. I'm just beginning to write my dissertation, which is a written translation, so will share anything interesting I come across.


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Yes, that's very impressive.


But I don't understand why you need to re-invent the wheel and create your own personal shorthand system, given there are long-established systems for writing down English shorthand, as well similar systems for Chinese. There are also stenotype machines, including machines for Chinese:




Do these established systems somehow not work well for consecutive interpreting?


Is recording a five-minute speech on your phone then playing it back and doing a simultaneous interpretation considered cheating? Perhaps in school, but not in real life, surely?

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I once saw Park Chan Wook, the Korean film director, interviewed at a screening in London.  His consecutive interpreter went through an entire notepad during the process - he unceremoniously tossed it on the floor once he had filled it and whipped out a fresh one.  He looked exhausted at the end, and I think that a fairly substantial part of the final applause was aimed in his direction.

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3 hours ago, 889 said:

But I don't understand why you need to re-invent the wheel and create your own personal shorthand system, given there are long-established systems for writing down English shorthand, as well similar systems for Chinese. 


This was actually why this area has been such a massive stumbling block for me. I really felt like it was reinventing the wheel. In my post from January this year I mentioned one of my year goals was to get proficient in Pitman shorthand. I actually dedicated a LOT of time to this system in the first term of the course, as I really believed if I could take down an entire speech, then I was safe. I actually got not bad at it after about three months of practice, but something very obvious was happening: I was looking at my notes and doing sight interpreting, which was far, far worse structurally than those who were using symbol systems. If youve ever tried sight interpreting (somebody gives you the full speech or essay, and you translate it orally as you read), you'll know its a different skill entirely, and perhaps the most difficult of all. It requires you to transform every detail from written style to oral style, flipping all the grammar and dealing with issues like terminology/characters youve never come across and cant let go of psychologically. Very difficult.


A shorthand system where you transcribe sound but not meaning (ie all english shorthands) is a massive trap, as its even further away from the whole idea of 'skopos theory'. There are vaguely established symbol systems that many interpreters share, like the symbol for 國 as shown above. But ultimately, its about finding the quickest routes through your own brain, and factoring in the different specialisms that different interpreters work in, having your own system really is the only way unfortunately.

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This is fantastic. Keep it up! I truly do admire all the hard work you are putting in! As I was reading this I kept thinking "I must remember to comment to see some photos of these notes" and suddenly I scrolled down to see them. Perfect! 

I really find it amazing how advanced this skill is. Just the sentence ...


if I really dedicated maybe another 5 years to this I could reach a very high standard.

..that's extremely scary, but also extremely exciting. You already seem to be so far ahead of where I am with my learning, yet you still are looking 5 years ahead. I love the idea of just keep pushing on with a second language, and when you add interpreting on top of that, amazing.


Just had a question, what are the ages of people on the course? 


Thanks for the update! 

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22 minutes ago, mackie1402 said:

what are the ages of people on the course?


I turned 30 at the end of last year, and im one of the older ones. There are about 4-5 of us late 20s early 30s, one is late 30s, the rest are early-mid 20s (around 15-20 students). I would guess that the age of starting English correlates with the age starting this course. From what Ive seen, the ones that are 21 started English with private tutoring from a young age. The majority are typical in starting English at 初中, then consistently working really hard for about 10 years to reach this level.

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Congratulations on your progress and thank you for sharing with us all this interesting information, your brain must be very sharp with all this training. Great report and very helpful for people contemplating a career in interpreting. I'm also very happy to know that your Bath University course turned out to be such a high standard, it's good to hear that not all courses have been decimated by lack of staff and funding.


I always felt a little sorry for the interpreters working in those big meetings at the UN, EU, G20 and others, though most look surprisingly cool and at ease.  I'd be a hopeless bundle of nerves, definitely consecutive interpreting wouldn't have been the field for me. May I ask what motivates you to choose this so difficult area?  You must like a challenge!

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6 hours ago, Luxi said:

May I ask what motivates you to choose this so difficult area?  You must like a challenge! 


yes, it really was because I wanted to take on the challenge. I always wondered whether interpreters really were superhuman, whether the job really was as amazing as it looks. And, well, the skill itself really is. Unfortunately the money in the industry is not what it appears to have once been like. The translation industry was hit hard by post-2008 cost-cutting and then machine-assisted translation has kept that cost (and quality) low. Interpreting is more resilient to this at least, but its certainly not as 'glamourous' as it might perhaps once have been.


As a small aside, I also chose this MA because I told my dad I was going to read interpreting at Bath ('his uni' as it were) just before he passed away a few years ago. I knew I probably wasn't going to be the best, but I stuck at it cos you know what your old man would say if you didnt haha

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Wow congrats, this is super interesting and equally impressive! I would've never imagined that the greatest challenge could be something different from the knowledge of the language itself!

The Chinese requirements for even considering enrolling in a course like this must be extremely high, I'd be curious to know what was the learning process that allowed you to get to this point?

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On 6/30/2019 at 5:02 AM, Luxi said:

But you are the best English student in your class, right? 


Apparently not.


and her English is far more eloquent than my, often ending up in me taking notes on how to speak better English after listening to her speeches!

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On 9/22/2019 at 6:45 AM, Milkybar_Kid said:



Your next year of uni must be starting soon. Any plans to update the blog? I always love reading it.




I just updated, sorry about the delay! No next year of uni, as the course is only one year. Have you made any decisions to do a course yet? Perhaps even already started one?

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On 1/4/2020 at 2:52 AM, Tomsima said:


I just updated, sorry about the delay! No next year of uni, as the course is only one year. Have you made any decisions to do a course yet? Perhaps even already started one?


It was great to read your final entry. Best of luck with everything you plan to do in the future.


I haven't taken things any further as my wife is pregnant again so baby stuff is taking priority at the moment. Hopefully I will be able to get back into Chinese one day.

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