“Note-Taking for Consecutive Interpreting”, a review

Count Smorltalk takes a look at the 2nd Edition of Gillies’ seminal work

I was contemplating sending these notes into Mme Blog as proof that I had read the book I was asked to review. And I thought I might leave it at that. But I had a niggling feeling I’d get sent away with a flea in my ear and told to do the review properly, so I have penned a few additional words of explanation.

In case you’re not yourself an interpreter versed in the art of consecutive note-taking, let me just ‘do’ my consec for you now:

“Ahem. Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Count Smorltalk and I am a conference interpreter who has been round the block a few times. It was in that latter capacity that I was approached recently about whether I would write a review of the second edition of the seminal work “Note-taking for Consecutive Interpreting” by Andrew Gillies. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard right, the author is the renowned interpreter, trainer, and trainer of trainers, Andrew Gillies, known quite simply around the world as The Andrew Gillies. Being asked to review a work by so well-regarded an expert as Mr Gillies is a daunting task for one who lacks the moniker The before his name, making do, as I must, with nothing more than plain Count. Quite frankly, I am honoured to undertake the job of reviewing the book, though I fear that I may be acquiring a deal of egg on my face having put up my consecutive notes for this speech for all to read. I would crave the indulgence of readers and of Mr Gillies himself should my note taking for this speech have fallen beneath the high standards set in the book, and should I have revealed myself in the process not to be as accomplished in the art of note taking as I might be. In that case, I apologise.”

My first consecutive interpreting assignment, some twenty years ago, was in Estonia. I had been sent thither with pad and pen to accompany a mixed delegation of politicians on a three-day visit. It started badly. And then it got worse. The first thing that the leader of the delegation uttered on seeing me was “Where’s Frank?” Frank was the interpreter that usually did this delegation. I was patently not Frank. Frank was smooth and accomplished and unflappable. I was young and awkward and terrified. For three days I sat across the table from the chairman in the direct firing line of his scowls and scorn. I ummed and ahhed, and mangled names, and generally made a complete hash of things. At one point I asked a senior interpreter from another booth if I was doing ok. The absence of an answer told me everything I needed to know. I was a disaster.

Disaster that I was, I did live to interpret again. And, since nine-tenths of everything to do with interpreting comes down to just doing it, I did slowly improve over time.

I ought really to have been rather good at consec back then since I had only a short time before completed an interpreting diploma. But I wasn’t. I am better now, even if it’s a long time since I trained. I guess I would liken it to driving. You take a course of lessons, you study the Highway Code, you practise like crazy, you take a test, and then you promptly drive the car into a ditch on your first outing. Years later, you can’t quite remember what that road sign with the upside-down triangle thing means, but who cares? You can pretty much drive with your eyes closed, and sometimes do… By dint of driving you have become an accomplished driver.

So it is with consec technique. What this book reminded me was that underlying the ink-spattered scribbles and damp, dog-eared pages of my notepad, is a whole series of techniques and methods that are tried and tested and more or less standardized. They are the ones I learned at university decades ago and that I have honed ever since.

Gillies points out that every interpreter will have his or her own style of note taking. But his main point is that by adopting and practising the basic techniques in his book, an interpreter will learn a system that will set them up to interpret nearly any speech.

Anyone starting off in consecutive interpreting will need to learn a solid technique, and this book contains pretty much every component of what I would call the standard method. It is what I was taught all those years ago, albeit better explained and set out. And it works.

Here you will find page after page of neat, logical, minimal, linear, standardized notes. Each page is a revelation. And as the chapters of the book go past, the notes become ever more complete and perfect. And the book tells you how to slice and dice a speech to produce the notes.

I remember taking a copy of Rozan’s ‘Prise de notes en interprétation consécutive’ out of the library many years ago. I sat down with it and tried to practise the ideas. But the neat Cartesian logic of Rozan’s notes was never going to emerge out of Smorltalk’s brain. My note-taking technique may be based on the standard theory, but frankly it resembles nothing so much as a man dipping a spoon into a large bowl of soup hoping to pull out some dumplings.

That then is the inherent contradiction of this kind of book. It instructs you precisely and brilliantly how to do it. And yet, like a soldier who has been drilled to within an inch of his life, when the bullets are flying, it’s just a question of staying alive.

If I were to give instruction in consecutive technique it would be this:

  • Learn how to hold a pen and to write properly.
  • Take a stiff drink before you start.
  • Look like you know what you’re doing.

Holding a pen in a sweaty, trembling hand is not all that easy. My handwriting is terrible. As soon as I start scribbling on the notepad I am producing the marks of the truly demented. They look nothing AT ALL like the notes in this book.

If you are a shy and retiring type, there is little as sphincter-looseningly terrifying as standing in front of a room of people delivering a speech. Somewhere between one and three stiff drinks lies salvation.


As I have aged I have acquired an air of authority. It is now much easier to stand in front of people and look like I know what I am doing. I can even fool myself into thinking I know what I am doing.

Years ago on a boat in Rotterdam I saw a French colleague do a consecutive. That remains to this day the best consec I have ever seen. He turned his natural bumptiousness to his favour. He didn’t so much give his interpretation as perform it. He stamped his authority on it. He so evidently looked like he was enjoying himself, that there was no way anyone could have suspected it wasn’t perfect.

Years later, in a meeting in a European tax ministry, I put this technique to good use. The first I noticed of the tax lawyer as he entered the meeting room was the loud thud that the four hardback volumes of VAT legislation made as they hit the desk. That made me jump. But I jumped a lot higher when he proceeded shortly after to read out passages of legislation. He would then look at me with a gimlet eye. There was nothing for it. Consecutive interpreting technique or no, the only way to survive this was to look him straight back in the eye, pull myself up to my full height, and let rip, tearing through my rendition of what I had understood him to say at such a canter that he became bamboozled. His own English was excellent. But not so excellent, it seemed, as to be able to follow my version at this pace.

My point is that the student interpreter should not in any way be put off if, when practising, he discovers that his notes are a chaos of scribbles and lines and do not resemble the examples in the book. The point is to have learned the drill so that under fire, the reflexes are right even if the execution is messy. It doesn’t matter a jot.

That might be my only criticism of the book, ultimately. It might have been helpful for those of us who are less accomplished draftsmen to see examples of real notes from real speeches. Perhaps in a later edition there could be an annex with some photocopies. I could be persuaded to donate old notes myself. They would look swell with the title “Incredibly, Count Smorltalk actually used these to deliver a passable interpretation!”.

The book really is a tour de force of logic, patient explanation, examples, and method. Gillies has a knack of explaining complex things simply. It is a must for any student of interpreting. As the author says “If you spend just one week on each chapter, you will have completed Part I in eight weeks. That is just one-third of the shortest available post-graduate interpreting courses, so you see, there is really no need to rush.”

What’s that?

You want a couple more tips before I go?

Ok, here are a few more tips for you and for the book:

  • When you draw an arrow, don’t bother with two points – one is plenty.
  • The last sentence of your speech is important, but make sure you always mark the starting page in your notes.
  • The country code for vehicles in Britain is GB, not UK. And in Denmark it’s DK, not DA. Ok, so what? (see p109).
  • Faute de mieux, menu cards make passable consec pads.
  • Since the first edition, the world has gotten bigger and it seems there are now about 7.5 billion people on Earth. So 1bn is now two fifteenths, logically, not one fifth (see p174).
  • Never believe the organizer when they say there won’t be an after dinner speech and then proceed to guzzle all the free wine.
  • Any form of cheating is allowed, such as asking the speaker what they might say after dinner (own life saved once by discovering before dinner that the mid-dinner speech would be on “the cultivation of sea squirts to reduce eutrophication of the Baltic”)


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Images: Count Smorltalk, TheRokon, George Hodan

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Count Smorltalk

Count Smorltalk

is an English booth interpreter. He wishes to remain anonymous.

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