Non-verbal Communication

By Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations

Today I digress from matters having directly to do with translations. I am not a translator; I am interested in language and linguistics as well as translations. I am primarily interested in communication itself.

GorillasI became interested in non-verbal communication many years ago when I came to know three toddler gorillas at the Los Angeles Zoo. One was the famous Caesar, the first gorilla to be delivered by Caesarian section. Brutus and Cleo shared his quarters. At zoo opening time the young gorillas clung to their keepers, they did not want to be put on display. Unlike many other visitors I did not hop around, hoot, scratch myself under my arms, grimace and make fun of the three young creatures. I made friends with them. I brought toys and other articles of interest that we could share and play with through the glass wall that divided us.

I had a collection of windy-up toys in my big purse. The young gorillas would choose which toys they wanted to see in action. They knew I had other things in my bag: a Swiss Army Knife, an umbrella, fruit, sunglasses, playing cards. When they lost interest in one thing they would point to the bag and demand that I pull out some other form of entertainment. I would be directed to take out the knife, and a piece of fruit they knew I had, and cut the fruit. I followed their instructions. Having cut the apple, I would offer a piece to them. They informed me that they knew I could not share it with them through the glass that separated us and that they regretted it. They thanked me for offering. How cool was that?

I recently stayed at an old-fashioned Bed and Breakfast establishment in the Swiss Alps. When I checked in I had a piece of chicken left-over from my restaurant lunch that I thought I might eat as a before-going-to-bed snack. Monty, the family dog, smelled it instantly. I gave him a morsel of chicken: small, because if every guest fed him liberally he’d blimp up like a Grand St. Bernard. A few minutes after I’d unpacked in my room the door opened a little way. I had shut the door but the latch hadn’t caught. “Who on earth?” I said. Monty walked in. He sat down and thumped his tail as if to ask if he was welcome.  I patted his head and said I was honored by his visit. He went over to my bed. He plumped his muzzle on my pillow and caused the wrapped biscuit placed on it to slide towards his nose. Monty turned his head towards me and thumped his tail. I shared the cookie with him because he had asked me “Please?” so eloquently.

The dog then scratched at the glass door that led to the balcony that ran along the entire side of the old building and gave onto the gorgeous garden below. I let Monty out the door—and saw the dog disgrace himself, for he went directly to a table two rooms down the balcony and scarfed up goodies left on the table by the little Chinese boy who shared the room and the balcony with  his parents.

I called Monty back and chided him for stealing the goodies the Chinese had left on the table. He hung his head, he knew he’d done wrong, but he thumped his tail and rubbed his head on my leg. “I’m just a dog,” he told me, “and this is what I do.”

Non-Verbal CommunicationThere are any number of non-verbal communication options available to humans. American Sign Language is widely used.  I learned it long ago, oddly enough when I did volunteer work at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles. I am actually rather creeped out by sign language. Many people think that it’s all in the hand signs, but much of the silent communication is done by body language and facial expressions. As a hearing person, I find the facial signals and body language used in Sign Language to be exaggerated and disturbing.

I also consider the question of communicating with aphasic people, folks who have lost not only the ability to speak but who have also lost the possibility of communicating in any form of language. I have read many reports by neurologists who have worked with aphasic patients. Music can often form a bridge. Digital skills can also make a connection. The celebrated neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks has cited the case of an aphasic surgeon who could not communicate on any normal level but who, when given a length of surgical thread, could tie elaborate and exquisite surgical knots.

The highest level translators work for the UN, heads of government and major industries. These hot-shot translators provide spoken translations in real time. Once those high level spoken translations have been transcribed, other translators get to work. The words spoken in those high level discussions can be exactly transcribed but: there is a very great deal of information contained in non-verbal gestures and signals, in facial expressions, body language—especially hand movements—wagging feet, scratching, tie-tugging, a panoply of interpretation of movement.

Compared to all that, the kind of translations performed by Adarve Translations might appear to be a simple matter. But translations are never a simple matter. When a translating job appears on Adriana’s computer she has to look at it in several dimensions before she can perform or commission a translation. Often, a job that shows up is perfectly straight forward, requiring only the most basic transition from one language to another. But equally often more sensitive material appears for translation, material that requires an understanding of cultural, political and/or historical background. Material that might require a back ground knowledge of religious, ecological and/or scientific comprehension.

Some of the material that appears on Adriana’s screen does not include non-verbal communication that might provide the back story for the material to be translated. Some of it does. Adriana and her cadre of translators must define what is important, grace à their understanding of historical, political, cultural, scientific, religious, social and other factors that they can use to place the translation request in a context that can allow them to accurately and sensitively change words from one language into words that make sense in another language.

Most Homo sapiens sapiens are very arrogant in their concept of language and communication. They think that only other humans are capable of clear and accurate communication with other beings. My young gorilla friends, and the dog Monty, were able to communicate in no uncertain terms. They were polite, engaging, and eloquent. We shared no language, but we communicated perfectly.

If you don’t share a language with a being with whom you wish to communicate, contact me it the being isn’t a Homo sapiens sapiens. Otherwise, contact Adarve Translations and you can’t go wrong.

All the best,

Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland

About the Author: Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.

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