Recognizing the Impact of Nonverbal Communication on Interpretation Accuracy

By August 14, 2015 Interpreting

With the aid of an interpreter, a young Nepali man, Kamal, is meeting his very first primary care physician in the United States. Pushing through a little nervousness, he answers all the doctor’s questions as best he can. Towards the end of the appointment, the doctor responds to one of Kamal’s comments with a strange facial expression. Thinking that he may have somehow insulted the doctor, Kamal instinctively pinches the lobes of his ears, a gesture that is understood in his community to be an apology for causing offense (Matsumoto & Hwang, 2013a).

Should the interpreter convey in English the meaning of this culturally bound gesture?

Here is where many interpreters get stuck thinking, “Well, he didn’t SAY he was sorry for possibly offending the doctor, so I’m not sure that I can interpret that.”

What do you think?

All interpreter codes of ethics in the United States include a tenet that explicitly highlights the importance of conveying messages accurately, both in content and spirit (Hernandez-Iverson, 2010; NAD-RID, 2005).  While Kamal did not verbalize his apology, he certainly communicated the message using a kind of translatable gesture known as an emblem. Therefore, the interpreter should convey the complete message.

Photo by Oliver F. Atkins. Public domain

Richard Nixon flashing an emblem* in 1968.

Biases that limit interpreters

Accuracy of interpretation is enhanced when interpreters understand verbal messages in context. Body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone measurably contribute to message meaning, as they form part of both cultural and affective context (Matsumoto & Hwang, 2013b). Nonverbal cues may even convey directly translatable meaning, such as in the case of the emblem Kamal used to apologize to his doctor. So why do we as a profession rarely talk about nonverbal communication and how it is appropriately used to convey meaning?

There are two biases we share as a profession in Western countries that seem to play a part.

  1. The vocabulary interpreters use to describe their work is largely borrowed from the longer-established field of translation. In translation there is typically one channel of communication, the written word. Terms such as “tone,” “style,” “register,” and “dynamic equivalence” come directly from the world of translation, and when used by interpreters, this vocabulary brings along with it a bias towards the words and structures of verbal language.
  1. Western countries such as the United States tend to value low-context over high-context communication. Low-context communicators focus more on the spoken word then high-context communicators, who rely heavily on nonverbal cues to convey meaning in conversation. Medical and legal contexts exemplify this reliance on the low-context perspective(Livermore, 2010).

“The law’s attitude to interpreters is at odds with the findings of current research in communication, which recognizes the importance of context in the effective exchange of messages.”

Holly Mikkelson (Mikkelson, 1998)

Fine-tuning accuracy in interpretation

By illuminating the role of nonverbal cues in spoken communication and giving interpreters the specialized vocabulary to talk about how these cues affect dynamic equivalence, trainers can empower new interpreters to fine-tune message equivalence. To this end, it is important that any standards for incorporating nonverbal communication meet two basic criteria before being considered for general use in training:

  1. Must enhance message accuracy.
  1. Cannot conflict with professional ethical standards.

The five standards outlined below meet these criteria. Consider their application in your own work as an interpreter and their value in training the next generation of interpreters.

The following standards were proposed during the presentation, Interpreting what is being “Said”, at the 2015 International Medical Interpreters Congress.Proposed standards for incorporating nonverbal cues into interpretations

  1. When there is an overwhelming convergence of nonverbal cues that clearly communicate a message not matching the verbal content, interpreters shall produce an interpretation as true as possible to the intended meaning and spirit of the source message.

Rationale: Two studies conducted in 1967, both looking at single-word responses, demonstrated that when feelings and attitudes are expressed, and body language and tone of voice contradict the spoken word, people tend to believe the nonverbal cues over the word (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967; Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967).

As an example, if a patient is asked, “Do you like the treatment plan we’ve outlined for you?” and responds with, “yes,” but expresses clear apprehension or dislike through tone, facial expressions, and body language, it is generally understood that the answer to the question is “no.” An interpreter who renders the word “yes” in the target language should clearly indicate the apprehension and/or conflicting messages in the tone, or use another word or phrase that accurately conveys the message as expressed by the patient.

  1. When a source message consists only of a culture-specific emblem, the emblem should be explicitly interpreted into the target language.

Rationale: Emblems, such as the one used by Kamal above, are often culture-specific and always convey a message that could be directly translated into a word or phrase.

  1. When critical illustrators are attached to a source message, interpreters shall incorporate the illustrators’ properties of content reinforcement and clarification in their interpretation.

Rationale: Illustrators are used to reinforce and illustrate a verbal message (Ekman, 1969). There are many kinds of illustrators, such as baton movements that emphasize ideas, ideographs that “sketch” a thought, deictic movements that involve pointing, and spatial movements that identify space. All of these take advantage of face-to-face communication to make messages clearer by using body language and facial expression as communication channels, options unavailable in written text.

Interestingly, signed languages have formalized many of these illustrators into linguistic structures known as classifiers, a testament to their value in real-time conversation, particularly for narratives, descriptions, and when a person is giving instructions.

  1. Interpreters shall acknowledge and judiciously act on nonverbal regulatorsused by speakers when managing the flow of communication.

Rationale: Regulators are nonverbal messages accompanying speech that control or coordinate interaction, for example indicating when people want to speak (Ekman, 1969). Regulators may be facial expressions or gestures, and are often culture-specific. As interpreters manage the flow of communication during an interpreted encounter, they should understand regulators used by the cultures of the persons they interpret for, using them to politely manage flow in culturally appropriate ways. This is especially true for simultaneous interpreting.

  1. Interpreters shall incorporate culture-specific affect displays into an interpretation’s tone, style, and/or content, so as to maintain the “spirit of the message.”

Rationale: Affect, or emotional response, may be broadcast through word choice and structure, but also through tone, volume, facial expressions, and body language (Ekman, 1969). In every culture there are implicit and explicit rules for when and how much affect should be used. Perception of a message as polite or rude may at times be dependent on the degree to which speakers follow the affect display rules of the culture they are affiliated with. Understanding these rules is thus an important interpreter competency.

It is important to remember that not all macro facial expressions, intentional social expressions, are understood across cultures. In Thailand, the land of smiles, for example, over a dozen variations of smiling are used to express emotion ranging from, “I’m happy to see you” to “I’m so furious I could hit you.”

Food for thought

While this short treatment of the topic gives us an opportunity to look at the value of nonverbal communication, there is still a lot to be done. In the absence of relevant standards and vocabulary to guide interpreters in discussing the linguistic choices they make, we inadvertently neglect the topic altogether. Basic standards to work from, such as the five outlined in this brief article, provide a starting point for fine-tuning interpreter accuracy in reception and expression, counterbalancing the typical bias away from explicitly acknowledging nonverbal message components.

The next time you are interpreting, make a conscious effort to incorporate clear nonverbal cues in your interpretation. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but as seen in the example of Kamal, our Nepali friend, sometimes gestures may be worth a few words of their own.



Works cited

Ekman, P. A. (1969). The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and coding.  Semiotica , 1, 49-98.

Ekman, P. A. (1972). Hand movements. Journal of Communication , 22, 353-374.

Ekman, P. A. (1976). Unmasking the face: A guide to recognizing emotions from facial clues. Los Altos, California, US: Malor Books.

Hernandez-Iverson, E. (2010). IMIA guide on medical interpreter ethical conduct . Retrieved April 10, 2015, from International Medical Interpreters Association:

Livermore, D. A. (2010). Leading with cultural intelligence: the new secret to success. New York, NY, USA: AMACOM.

Matsumoto, D., & Hwang, H. S. (2013a). Body and gestures. In L. San Francisco State University and Humintell, D. Matsumoto, M. G. Frank, & H. S. Hwang (Eds.), Nonverbal communication: Science and applications. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Matsumoto, D., & Hwang, H. S. (2013b). Cultural influences on nonverbal behavior. In M. e. al., D. Matsumoto, M. G. Frank, & H. S. Hwang (Eds.), Nonverbal communication: Science and applications. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology , 31 (3), 248-252.

Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 6 (1), 109-114.

Mikkelson, H. (1998). Towards a redefinition of the role of the court interpreter. Interpreting: International Journal of Research and Practice in Interpreting , 3 (1), 21-45.

NAD-RID. (2005). Code of Professional Conduct. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

Soon Ang, L. V. (2008). Handbook of cultural intelligence: Theory, measurement, and applications. Armonk, NY, US: ME Sharp.

Thorne, P. (2010). Debunking the body language myth . Retrieved April 10, 2015, from VIva Training: