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Working memory and note taking in consecutive interpreting: didactic guidelines for interpreter training

In professional fields where they are required Interpreting services, such as conferences, business meetings, political speeches, etc., the consecutive modality does not attract the same attention as other types of interpretation, such as for example the simultaneous one, which is distinguished by the immediacy in the delivery of the message or speech. And this is a real shame.

The consecutive interpretation, in fact, has characteristics that make it truly indispensable in the current professional and educational market, because it is a type of interpretation adaptive, versatile and powerful.

Consecutive interpreting does its job well even in the absence of technological resources; an unthinkable scenario with other types of interpreting like that simultaneous.

In addition to the necessary skills of the profession, a consecutive interpreter needs only two tools to work well: a notebook it's a Penna that support his working memory.

The second important feature of consecutive interpreting is pedagogical model, since professionals, researchers and teachers agree that this type of interpreting is an important preliminary stage in the training of interpreters who aim to master the simultaneous mode.




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The exercises and consecutive training are developed through many small tasks and exercises such as discourse analysis, organization and hierarchy of ideas, creation and memorization of symbols and abbreviations, etc.

It is not possible to take notes with due precision and effectiveness, if first the skills of listening, understanding and processing information.

These three processes are interdependent, because if the interpreter does not listen he cannot understand the message. In the process of understanding, the interpreter constructs a mental representation of the overall speech meaning to subsequently process the information by performing an accurate analysis that reveals the intention of the message.

The fulcrum of consecutive interpreting work rests on the relationship between two specific tasks: take notes and keep the main information in mind of speech, since it is on the effectiveness of this relationship that the interpreter relies to retrieve information and produce the message. The relationship between working memory and note-taking of consecutive interpreters has been the subject of numerous studies around the world.

As we know, interpreters are expected to have much more than just language skills. In addition to having a thorough knowledge of the target language (usually foreign working languages), interpreters should also be proficient in their own language and culture, as well as the cultures of the foreign languages they work with.


There are also other significant aspects to the interpretation: ethical and professional principles; the role of the interpreter as an agent of communication and as a go-between between languages and cultures.

The consecutive interpretation, and for more experienced interpreters, taking notes is, to a large extent, of little importance when compared to the constant efforts to analyze what is being said, understand its meaning and translate it into speech in simultaneous interpreting.

However, for less experienced interpreters, taking notes is a difficult obstacle to overcome. It is to the latter that this is addressed White Paper.

First we will try to understand what it is working memory and if, and to what extent, it affects the tasks of the consecutive interpreter.

Referring to authoritative studies, we will also discover why interpreters have a more efficient working memory than the average and how much this is due to their training.

Finally, we will briefly focus on a critical aspect for newbies, namely note taking, and we will share several useful tips to speed up the learning process of this fundamental skill.

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Cognitive processes: working memory in consecutive interpreting

The working memory, or working memory, is described as the mental process through which we are able to store information temporarily to then use them when they are not accessible to our senses.

The information it can come both from an external stimulus, for example something that has just been explained to us, and from stored stimuli, that is, a concept that we have already studied previously.

It's a kind of short-term memory involving the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the control of executive functions. That's why working memory allows us to reason, plan and make decisions.

It is one of the executive functions that we use the most in our daily life, as there helps to understand two or more pieces of information that have occurred to us in a short space of time, for example when we are talking on the phone and remember that we have to take the clothes out of the washing machine.

It also allows us to combine new knowledge with previous knowledge, as when we perform an addition: before being able to do an algebraic sum and to keep in mind two or more digits, it is clear that we must know and memorize what and which numbers are.

Much of the above information is the result of the work of Alan David Baddeley, a British psychologist known for his studies of working memory, especially his model of multiple components, which are as follows.


This component is responsible for performing two functions: assign attention resources to the activities we perform at a given moment e memorize information.

It is an active control mechanism that deals with directing attention appropriately in order to use the information obtained and use it to solve problems. Attention is a limited resource, which is why this component tries to allocate it appropriately.


The phonological loop is the system responsible for storing verbal information in acoustic format for a certain period of time. This is possible thanks to two sub-components: the passive phonological memory and the articulatory repetition process.


Its function is very important for preserve information about space objectsthrough images. Its characteristics are very similar to those of the previous component, except that it handles visual information instead of sound.

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Working memory contributes significantly to processes like those of comprehension, division of attention and reformulation, which is the final part, the information output part. Studies on the working memory of interpreters, in addition to contributing to an experimental and detailed analysis of the functioning of the working memory of interpreters, underline theimportance of training gradual and scheduled for interpreters and how this would help improve their memory and attention span.


Baddeley established this new component to complement the model. It's a temporary information store. In other words, it works with multimodal information, not just words or images, and is mainly characterized by allowing the long-term memory and working memory to swap information.

Studies on the functioning of the memory of consecutive interpreters are therefore based on the working memory model proposed by Baddeley, in which memory is described as a system that is not only responsible to the temporary storage and manipulation of information, but also as a bridge capable of connecting incoming information to information stored in long-term memory.

Is it true that interpreters have more efficient than average working memory?

To investigate how the interpreting training can affect working memory, scientific research often compares how skilled interpreters and novice (or non-interpreters) perform on working memory tasks. The results are mixed.

For example, in the complex task of interval listening, novice interpreters performed significantly better than both control groups in Lepke and Nespulous (2006), but there were no group differences between professional interpreters , advanced student interpreters and beginners.

In a comprehensive review, Dong and Cai (2015) found that the lack of consistent evidence for an interpreter advantage in working memory use can be attributed to several weaknesses in some previous studies, such as insufficient sample size , lack of a participant control group, lack of control for factors such as age and language proficiency.

Let's take the first factor as an example. The sample size of the participants was
rather small in some studies (e.g., 10 in Padilla, 1995; 11 in Liu, 2004; 12 in Chincotta and Underwood, 1998; less than 13 in Signorelli, 2012), which may lead to insufficient statistical scope.

Brysbaert and Stevens (2018) recommend that an appropriately powered repeated measures reaction time experiment have at least 1600 observations for each condition, i.e. 40 participants and 40 stimuli for each condition.

In addition to these weaknesses, another limitation is that most of the previous studies have adopted a cross-sectional design. The presence of some weaknesses such as age is inherent in a cross design study because professional interpreters are generally older than novice or student interpreters.

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Also, a cross-sectional design cannot clarify the causation of an interpreter's working memory advantage. The possibility is that some personal traits, such as good basic memory skills, may have led the interpreter to select that particular career. In a nutshell, more research is needed to clarify the relationship between working memory and the interpreting task or interpreting training experience.

How consecutive interpreter training affects working memory

Previous studies have made invaluable contributions to push forward the research frontier.

What we are about to talk about now, however, went even further.

Research has taken two main steps in an attempt to answer the question of how consecutive interpreter training affects working memory functions.

First, by focusing on consecutive interpreter training and comparing it to general L2 language learning; secondly, using a drawing
longitudinal with a sufficient sample size that was well controlled for relevant background characteristics (for example, age, intelligence, economic and social status, and history of language learning).

These measures were intended to ensure that any differences in working memory between the two groups could be attributed solely to the type of language training followed.

Theoretically, the embodied process model proposed by Cowan (1988, 1995) is the most relevant for the present study. The critical idea is that human memory is a single filing system composed of elements at various levels of activation.

This system can be thought of as long-term memory, in which some elements are above the activation threshold.

These activated items, thought to be in short-term memory, are outside conscious awareness but still affect processing such as semantic priming.

Some elements of short-term memory fall into the focus of attention and are in an over activated state, and therefore must be maintained or manipulated with conscious effort. According to Cowan (1995, p. 100),

… Working memory is based on that information activated together with the central executive processes.

Building on the model of Cowan (1988), Mizuno (2005) proposed his expanded model of embodied processes for interpretation, adding the two processes of language comprehension and production to the two sides of the original model and emphasizing the interaction between the memory system and the language system during the interpreting process.

This conceptualization of working memory from the point of view of embedded processes explains well not only the dynamics of the memory system, but also the difference between consecutive interpreting and general L2 training in terms of working memory.

During consecutive interpreting, the interpreter listens to a portion of the source language input, then recalls as accurately as possible in another language what was conveyed in the input.

In general, in L2 training, the student understands and produces but does not have to remember the messages heard. In other words, although both the consecutive interpreter and the L2 learner need to focus on a segment of the message they are hearing or producing, the consecutive interpreter needs to remember from the beginning of an input chunk.

Borrowing terms used by Cowan in his model, for the interpreter to remember, the Central Executive directs attention to (i.e., reactivates) the input trait that has already passed the focus of attention, and the content in focus attention is being updated.

Although the focus of attention needs to be constantly updated for both the interpreter and the general L2 learner to perform any genuine language task well,

interpreting or remembering as accurately as possible in another language is certainly more demanding in terms of accuracy and response time than the general L2 tasks of listening, reading, speaking and writing.

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In general L2 conversation, for example, listening comprehension is important, but the other party may ask for clarification if they don't get the message, and are often quite tolerant even if they don't understand every single detail of what is being said.

Thus, it was hypothesized that the working memory refresh function was closely related to consecutive interpreting performance, and that training for consecutive interpreters itself could help improve refresh.

Interpreters may process source language input in a parallel fashion, i.e. their source language processing may be influenced by the target language (e.g. Dong and Lin, 2013), suggesting that interpreters may have a way more efficient at processing the source language so that they can remember details better and perform better on verbal breadth working memory tasks.

Furthermore, Ecker (2010) found that intervals and working memory update are closely related, giving rise to another theory that verbal intervals in working memory were related to consecutive interpreting performance and that consequently consecutive interpreter training could help improve working memory verbal ranges.

The pitfalls of note taking

First a clarification: the annotation process is not entirely perfect. It can never replace the oral presentation that we have heard previously.

However, much of what we say is of little importance to the conversation. The interpreter's role in this note-taking process is, therefore, to select what is said and to render only what will be important to the recipients of the message.

This cannot be a mechanical process: the more mechanical the interpreter's notes are, the lower the quality of the interpretation.

Taking notes is not the same as making a dictation, but has the purpose of supporting the interpreter's working memory when interpreting a message.

Notes are short-lived and can only be used within minutes of giving the speech to be interpreted.

When the speaker finishes the speech, what has been said should still be fresh in the interpreter's memory and the notes are just there to recall it quickly and without hesitation. Notes are personal.

For this reason they can only be used by the interpreter who took them and only within a certain period of time.

A common problem of the novice interpreter is that of exaggerating with the notes, ending up paying little attention to the speaker's words. Surrender can, therefore, end up being a superficial discourse with serious mistakes and easily avoidable contradictions.

Tips for taking notes in consecutive interpreting

Here is a list of measures suggested by professional interpreters:

  • Take notes quickly. Don't wait for the word "right", because it's not the right time to be a perfectionist.
  • Jot down easy-to-understand words to jog your memory when you need to deliver your speech.
  • Avoid using mismatched sheets or you will end up with disorganized sheets of paper; use 15 x 20 cm notebooks instead.
  • Write on one side of the page only.
  • Use a pencil.
  • Write legibly to quickly recall ideas and not risk getting lost during the speaker's speech.
  • During the performance, always maintain eye contact with the audience.
  • Avoid using ambiguous abbreviations.
  • Use existing symbols and never invent a symbol during the speech that is not easily recognizable.
  • Change the structure of the notes using common sense, always respecting the cohesion of the speech and the intention of the speaker.
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What you should note

Always take note of:

  • Main ideas: secondary ideas will be remembered during the interpretation process
    mental and surrender.
  • Opinions and points of view: they are always perceptible and the interpreter may not be able to transpose them in his interpretation during the delivery.
  • Numbers: These are very important to speech, are the same in every language, and are quick and easy to write down (as opposed to harder-to-understand dates).
  • Technical terms: they are less frequent and can give you quite a few headaches.
  • Connectors: connect memory to what the speaker said. They are important because they show the sequence of ideas and also the opposite ideas.

What happened and when (verb tenses): because they place the discourse in time.
The sentences said by the speaker that serve as an introduction and conclusion, as they help to understand the speech.

Keyword: they are important not for their linguistic meaning, but for what they mean in the mind of the interpreter (the meaning they acquire for the speaker).


How to take notes

It all depends on the purpose of the speech to be interpreted: an informative speech requires full taking of notes, especially when it comes to particularly unusual facts; however, if the event is unusual, a word may suffice.

A descriptive speech also requires a complete taking of notes, but based on detailed aspects that perfectly describe what is intended to be conveyed.

An argumentative speech is based on much less information. In this case we will use multiple connectors and keywords. Notes must be taken in the language into which the interpretation will be performed (target language), so as to allow the interpreter to dissociate the two languages. The interpreter will therefore be less inclined to use a literal translation in the middle of the speech.

If the interpreter cannot remember a word in the target language when taking notes – and to avoid getting stuck on that word and getting lost in the speaker's speech – he should write down the term in the source language and continue taking notes. This will save a lot of time until he comes up with the right word.

Some interpreters have developed a perfect system of symbols to help them during interpretation.

Abbreviations, on the other hand, can be very useful when dealing with country names (DE for the
Germany, PT for Portugal), units of measurement (km per kilometer or m per metre) or chemical elements (O for oxygen, Pu for plutonium), among others.

How much to write: too much or too little

The interpreter should annotate as little as possible and as quickly as possible to avoid getting stuck on the words. The goal is to deliver fluent and accurate speech, based on the information noted down. In short, the work of interpreters is complicated by the immediacy of each moment and the brevity of each sentence. There is no perfect method, but proven good practices that can be a good starting point for all those who wish to embrace this art.





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