Language Services December 5, 2021

Notetaking: Tips & Tricks for Interpreters

Medical interpreters are challenged with retaining a large amount of information and quickly conveying it into another language for communication to flow smoothly from the LEP patient to the provider and back again. Notetaking is a tremendous skill that can be built and refined to aid the interpreter with memory retention, as it makes it easier to recall message details.

Importance of Notetaking

Notetaking helps the conversation flow naturally by decreasing the need of the interpreter to interrupt or pause the conversation, allowing the two parties to communicate in lengthier sections, as a language concordant conversation would. Digesting lengthier bits of communication also allows the interpreter to better understand the meaning, context and salient concepts of what is being conveyed.

Another great reason to work on notetaking techniques is that notetaking helps maintain the accuracy and completeness of the message, both components of the professional interpreter’s code of ethics. The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) code states that “interpreters have the duty to convey all messages faithfully and completely”, and “the interpreter strives to render the message accurately, conveying the content and spirit of the original message”.

Notetaking can be crucial for capturing key pieces of information in healthcare encounters or steps in a process, including:

  1. Names (how they are pronounced) and addresses
  2. Numerical figures (dates, times, monetary amounts, dosages, telephone numbers, and addresses -including zip codes)
  3. Specific sequence -lists in the specific order given by the speaker (e.g., measurements, dosages, instructions)
  4. Specific details (e.g., descriptive information)

Perhaps the best part about notetaking is that each interpreter develops their own method. While every interpreter’s notes will appear unique, there is always room for improvement and to learn new techniques.

Traditional Versus Digital Notetaking

While computerized notetaking resources are available to interpreters, studies have shown that the action of writing down information by hand makes it easier to retrieve from your short-term memory than typing. In addition, researchers have found that when people take notes digitally, they tend to transcribe more verbatim of what is being said than with traditional notetaking, which takes more time to decipher. With interpreting, notetaking is meant to shorten the interpretation process, not lengthen it. Additionally, taking notes by hand allows the interpreter to use the preferred symbols and drawings that might not be available on a keyboard.

Recommended Notetaking Techniques

Notetaking can be broken into three modes:

  • Language
  • Images
  • Symbols

Recommended language mode notetaking methods include:

  • Skipping vowels in words of three or more letters
  • Shortening sentences and abbreviating words down to four or five letters. For example, shortening “medications” to “meds”.
  • Writing the first letter of connected words. For example, writing “high blood pressure” as “HBP”.
  • Using an apostrophe. For example, shortening “continued” to “cont’d”.

Images mode involves using vectors, arrows, graphic lines and geometric shapes to convey meaning. Recommended image methods include:

  • Drawing a line underneath a word to emphasize meaning
  • Drawing a circle or box around a word to emphasize meaning
  • Drawing a line through a word to indicate a negative meaning
  • Using arrows to indicate the use of past, future and present
  • Using arrows to emphasize the importance or frequency of an action

Symbols mode is the most individual for each interpreter. As symbols are wide in variety, it is important not to make up symbols in the moment but rather to practice them between sessions. When using symbols, it is also best practice to keep them simple for fast and easy deciphering.

Additional Considerations for the Interpreter When Notetaking

Additional considerations to keep in mind include the interpreter’s need to maintain a professional appearance when interpreting over video or onsite while notetaking. This can be achieved by maintaining eye contact and looking down only when necessary. When working on video, one way for the interpreter to do this effectively is to monitor him or herself in the self-view window.

Another factor to consider is the interpreter’s composition layout. Vertical lists are helpful when given information in rapid sequence, such as symptoms, conditions, or an order of events. A diagonal layout with vertical parallels is helpful when grouping ideas and is preferred by many interpreters as it aligns with one’s natural eye movement, making notes in this layout quick to decipher. Spacing or lines across the page between sections can be used to indicate boundary between different meaning units. Shorter lines can be utilized to demonstrate that information in different meaning units belongs together.

Retaining and rapidly conveying everything that is communicated in two different languages in a healthcare encounter is no easy task. The act of notetaking helps the interpreter more easily remember and provides the interpreter with a visual of the conversation to quickly reference for improved accuracy. Learn more about notetaking and discover additional tips and tricks for interpreters here.

“Sometimes I think we’ve all had moments where we thought that we could rely on our memory and then a few moments later we are not sure if we delivered the message without missing anything. So, it is extremely important to take notes and to continue developing the system that works best for you.” -Yulia, Video Remote Interpreter

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