I’ve taught note taking for healthcare interpreters to many people, and over the years I’ve developed my own system that for me is quite effective. With note taking, the provider or patient can speak for longer without the interpreter interrupting to interpret. You can be more accurate with the added memory support. With note taking, you can feel more confident taking the consec portion of your oral exams for national certification. There’s one trick though: You have to know how to take notes.
Here are some things to get you started, based on my experience as an interpreter and an interpreter trainer.
What are the purpose of your notes? These are not the notes that court or conference interpreters use. They are there to compliment your short-term memory. They are there to make sure you’re remembering all the details. In healthcare interpreting, you want to make sure you’re getting it all, and getting it all right. Noting numbers is important. Also proper names. If there’s a name of a medication, a diagnosis, or even a doctor’s name that’s got you tripped up, writing it down and reading it from your notes makes things a lot smoother.
What should your notes look like? These are not notes with full words in them. I’m afraid that many interpreters try to take notes and give it up quickly, because they’re writing down full words. This isn’t useful because they’re spending too much time writing and then they stop listening, which is kind of an important part of interpreting. The exception would be if, as mentioned, there’s a name you’re having trouble saying. You’ll want to write it down in advance if you can–for example, if you know before you go in that you’ll be discussing a long, complicated diagnosis that takes a lot of mental gymnastics to move from one language to another. Write it down, and read it off the page when it comes time to say it.
Otherwise, you want just enough to jog your memory. Think the first couple letters of a word, maybe a capital letter that represents major organs or common diagnoses that come up over and over again. Left and right arrows can be useful to indicate time. Up and down arrows can represent things getting better or worse, increase and decrease, you get the idea. You want to focus on notes for things that come up a lot, and that will vary depending on where you’re working.
How do you do it? When you’re working on-site, be discrete when you’re taking notes. Don’t bust out an enormous notepad, rustle it around, or click your pen incessantly. This draws attention to you and feels uncomfortable for everyone. I’ve had interpreters tell me that they love taking notes while interpreting over the phone. But when they’re on-site, they feel the provider or patient is staring at them, as if they’re wondering why they’re taking notes. You can address that up front: “I might take notes to make sure I’m being accurate, but I’ll destroy them after.” Then you should actually destroy them after. Nobody has to feel weird about what you’re doing (including you). Remember that thing about transparency in interpreting? This is part of it.
How do you start? Slowly. This is what I did and it worked well (this is what I did for my conference notes as well, but that’s a story for another time). I’d start by using an abbreviation for something I heard commonly. Such as, “Have you had any nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation?” This can be noted as nvdc. Even if you’ve heard this question a thousand times, just the exercise of listening and writing while you continue to listen is helpful to get used to that multi-tasking. Once you’re comfortable with that, move on and start noting down other things.
And while we’re on the subject of listening and writing things down at the same time, expect to feel distracted by your own note taking when you start out. Don’t be discouraged. You’re adding another task (note taking) to your already burdened, multi-tasking brain. If you start little by little, and add notes over time, it will get easier and the payoff is a valuable tool that supports your short-term memory. The end result should be a better interpreting experience for you and the people you’re interpreting for.
Here are two things that will not work: Memorizing a list of symbols and abbreviations for your notes, and trying to use a whole bunch of them at once for the first time. Take it from the voice of experience, your best bet is to think of symbols and abbreviations that make sense to you as you go, and then integrate them slowly into your interpreting practice.
From a test-taking standpoint, you’re allowed to take notes for the consec portion of the CCHI and NBCMI oral exams. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend trying your first hand at note taking on the day of the exam. It needs to be a skill that you develop first over time.
From a practical standpoint, note taking not only supports accuracy, but many times allows the speaker to go on longer than if you didn’t have your super snazzy note taking skills. It should be one of a few solid tools you have for your short-term memory.
As always, feel free to add your tips or ask your questions in the comments. Happy note taking!
PS There is a great article on note taking for healthcare interpreters in Cindy Roat’s Healthcare Interpreting in Small Bites.