Need to Improve Your Note-Taking? Learn to Listen!

Do you want to know the funny thing about notes? The better you get at taking them, the less of them you need.  I noticed this one day in court, a few years into my career when I took a look at my notepad and realized that apart from a few numbers (and some terribly unartistic doodles), the pages were pretty much blank.

Blank pages as a revelation.

The more I think about it (and I do a lot of thinking about these things, especially with the scary final—I hope—year of graduate school looming before me), the more convinced I become that writing notes is not about, well, writing. The notepad is the last step (yes, I said it—last step) in a lightning-quick process at the heart of which lies analysis and mental organization. Before an interpreter’s pen ever hits the paper, she must first determine what information should be jotted down, while never losing sight of the information that comes next. As each idea comes in, she must identify exactly what the speaker’s point is, and how it relates to the previous idea, without missing the next one.

The operative verb is not “write”!

Personally, I think this is why consecutive interpretation can be the most challenging mode to master. When I teach notes, the hardest part is convincing my students that it’s not about writing down as much as possible—it’s about writing as little as possible, in an organized way, so that you free up your brain to do what it must do: Listen. Doing this demands incredible focus on the one hand, and an automatic note-system on the other. We cannot waste time or brain space figuring out how to note something down. We must simply note it. That brings me to the concept of conference consecutive. In my first month at the Master’s in Conference Interpreting at Glendon, we had about 80 study and class-time hours. For that entire month—all 80 hours—any time we performed an interpreting exercise, we did it without a notepad at all. That’s because taking notes starts with listening, and until you can listen and analyze expertly, you will not have anything helpful to jot down.

Analyze. Breakdown. Reconstruct.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about this same concept in an article entitled Conquering Consecutive.  This year, I took my own advice one step further. I’ve been using three-minute speeches with my students, found in an incredible resource called the Speech Repository. (Hands down, my favorite so far is the speech on a real-life phenomenon in which crabs, frogs, and fish literally rain from the sky.) Apart from imparting fascinating pieces of information about random topics, these speeches help us learn how to analyze. I know that my court interpreting students will most likely never interpret anything longer than a few sentences, but I don’t care. I want them to learn how to scrutinize a speech. I want them to identify, truly identify, the ideas beneath the words. I want them to learn how to extract meaning. Doing this with longer speeches has the added bonus of breaking old habits. They simply cannot try to remember every single word out of a 3-minute speech, so they stop doing that, they stop panicking, and they start listening.

Put your ears to work, not your pen.

My advice, if you struggle with consecutive, is to listen to your own interpretation. If the ideas are coming out garbled, it is not your note “writing” that needs work. It’s your ability to identify the ideas and understand how they relate to one another that must be improved. That being the case, it’s time to drop the pen. Yes, drop the pen. Then, just listen. Listen until you can clearly identify an introduction. Listen until you can explain, in one, clear, sentence, exactly what each part of the speech is about. Listen until you can understand that all words are not created equal and that it is how an idea relates to another that will breathe life into your interpretation. Listen until you don’t need to listen anymore. Then, and only then, should you pick up your notepad and write.

Portrait of Athena Matilsky

Athena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: You can read other pieces by Athena by clicking here.

  • Mary Lee Behar
    Posted at 16:24h, 02 August Reply

    Great observations, Athena. Thank you for sharing. I love the speech repository too.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 21:28h, 02 August Reply

    I took my last CEU courses to renew the FL certification online with an outfit called Interpretrain. The owner, Virginia Valencia, is a Colombian lady that was very nice throughout the process. I was impressed with the courses and thought everything was very well thought out and executed. Anyway, Ms. Valencia seems to be some sort of note taking Jedi as well. She wrote a note-taking manual and I hear it’s excellent. I haven’t pulled the trigger on it myself yet, but I just might. Here’s the Amazon link so you see what I’m talking about.

  • Ana Molina
    Posted at 01:06h, 06 August Reply

    Athena you are amazing
    I have seen improvement due to your training ! And everything that you post is correct regarding the listening
    Speech repository has been of great help and your expertise is helping tremendously
    Thank you!
    You are the best!

  • Glenda Obando
    Posted at 15:43h, 06 August Reply

    Athena great article! Thanks for the recommendations. When you have your students listen to the 3-minute speeches to extract meaning and ideas, do they have to do it in the the SL or TL?

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 01:18h, 14 August Reply

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone! Alfredo, I agree: Virginia Valencia from Interpretrain is awesome. 🙂 Ana, I’m so glad that my classes are helping you. And Glenda, when we do our summaries it is sometimes source language and sometimes target language–it doesn’t matter, because the focus is not on language, but rather on organization, structure and precision.

  • Pingback:Note-Taking is Vital – Bridging the Gap Interpreting
    Posted at 19:24h, 14 August Reply

    […] information is vital for interpreters, particularly when interpreting consecutively. In this recent article by Athena Matilsky at the NAJIT Observer discusses how to get the most from your note taking during […]

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