Tools of the Trade – Interview with Australia’s Top Mandarin Interpreter, Charles Qin


  1. When do you use shorthand writing? For all interpreting work or just for some jobs?

A notepad of some sort (or an Ipad) is an interpreter’s best friend!  For work involving consecutive interpreting I will always get out the notebook – or Ipad or similar. If you have an interpreter who doesn’t use a notebook be wary! The issue is retention/memory and detail. When you take on an interpreting job, you usually don’t know how long someone is going to speak for – I’ve been on the stage with a Minister who delivered his whole speech, forgetting me!  So I took the whole lot down in shorthand and had to translate it in one go – much harder, but imagine without notes. Interpreters might have good memories, but after hours of back and forth interpreting the memory is going to fade a bit, isn’t it.  There are certain items that are more difficult and more important – numbers, dates, names (no one likes to be missed out in a list of dignitaries!) For Simultaneous Interpreting, on the other hand, there is no time for notes, you’ve done your preparation and glossary in advance and it is into your headphones and translated out of your mouth immediately.

    2. How does using shorthand help you work as a professional interpreter?

It is the only way to record and recall speech fully and accurately.  How many of us can rely on our memories to recall all the points someone just made in a conversation?  Not only that – you need more than a summary – you need a full rendering of the speaker’s words. If in court, for example, your obligation is to fully and accurately render the witness or speaker’s words, not to be selective.  The only way to do this is to write it all down in the first place. Much of my work involves big numbers – converting these to Chinese (or English) is fraught as the numbering systems differ. China units of 10,000 versus one thousand in English; gigawatts in Chinese goes like 10,000 thousand watts (eg 40 gigawatts in English is 4000 10,000 thousand watts).  You have to be a mathematician in this job too!

Many interpreters fall into the trap of relying on the printed speech given (hopefully in advance) by the speaker – all well and good you think!  Not so, most Aussie speakers do not stick to the script and all of a sudden the interpreter takes a U-turn. I’ve even seen interpreters who get ahead of the speaker.  People will notice and this is not acceptable for a professional – so by all means use the speech to help guide and prepare, but note taking on the day is a MUST.

  1. Do you use a standard shorthand form or have you created your own system?

I always advise students and young interpreters NOT to learn a standard system – if you think about it, this would be another language and would be yet another link in the chain requiring conversion – a Chinese whisper perhaps.  I recommend adopting your own system to trigger your memory and I use a combination of Chinese characters and English abbreviations and symbols that has stood me in good stead for a long time.  Sometimes a client will ask me about a particular point made or a rough rendition of some of the conversation.  I won’t say it is easy to remember days later when other activities are fresher in the memory, but nevertheless it can be helpful.

So the lady who rang up recently requesting a ‘walking dictionary’ may, in fact, have meant a Chin Interpreter with notebook in hand!


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