Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Dramatic expression

By Mira Kadrić

Why teaching theatre techniques to interpreting students can dramatically improve their practice.

Most people have the ability to read body language intuitively, especially facial expressions and gestures, and are generally able to interpret it immediately. This is true both for everyday and for highly formalised settings involving face-to-face communication. When a statement is to be assessed formally, we need methodically sound decision-making techniques to take in information.

When evaluating what has been said in a police interview or in court, for example, where both the verbal and the non-verbal content of the statement must be considered, it is crucial not to base one’s assessment on a gut feeling, but on a sound and justifiable approach. This is even more difficult in interpreter-mediated communication, when the court must base its assessment of the credibility of a defendant or witness on the interpretation provided.

Conversations in institutional contexts are highly structured: in a police interview or courtroom, turn-taking follows an expected pattern whereby the representative of the institution asks questions and the other party answers. Nevertheless, such conversations can go in unexpected directions and the messages may contain ambiguities or contradictions. It can be part of a questioning technique to ask surprising questions, or to ask someone to tell a story backwards.

In addition to such linguistic difficulties, the interlocutors may complement or even replace verbal utterances with body language. Interpreters must learn to handle surprising turns in communication. What do you do if one interlocutor swears at another? How should an interpreter react to participants speaking over each other, or to a racist leader of negotiations?  

Based on a method developed by drama theorist Augusto Boal,1 I use training techniques that are especially suited for teaching interpreting because they treat verbal and non-verbal communication equally, work with repetition, and aim to change (communicative) behaviour. Boal aimed to empower people and show them how they might reach their goals by changing their strategies of (inter)action. This is also the purpose of teaching exercises: they are intended to help students develop their skills so that they not only have more knowledge but also a larger repertoire of strategies.

Theatre techniques as a didactic tool

How can the approach of theatre pedagogy be applied in class? Boal’s method is based on repeating scenes with a clear goal in mind: acting with more confidence and overcoming conflicts of interest or oppression by others. It can be easily adapted for interpreting classes by having students repeat an interpreting situation – e.g. a diplomatic meeting, questioning in court or doctor-patient interaction – until a result is reached that is satisfactory to everyone involved.

Boal distinguishes five phases of the didactic process of change: reflection, improvisation, rehearsing action, reflection, action. Students have the opportunity to observe and reflect on different behaviours, try different approaches, and test and develop alternative approaches until a successful interpretation is achieved that meets the standards of professional ethics. This involves three key techniques:

1 Reflecting on (one’s own) body language and making the body more expressive/ changing its expressivity.

2 Looking at a situation from a language/ culture-specific angle.

3 Treating a situation as discourse.

Body language includes all signals used by a speaker. These can be conscious, non-verbal messages – such as waving in greeting – but can also occur involuntarily, particularly culture-specific signals. In exercises to make the body expressive, students try to refrain from using their usual ways of communicating, exploring new forms of expression instead. The spoken word is replaced by the body as the means of communication. All forms of non-verbal, culture-specific behaviour that are important for interpreters can be included.

This may mean that implicit information in the original, which is known to the speaker (and ideally to the interpreter), is processed in such a way that the information is fully understood in the target language. Exercises deal primarily with scenarios that have led to misunderstandings or misinterpretations in real life. The following situation is taken from a criminal case involving Arabic speakers:

Judge to victim/witness: “Would you like to add something to your statement?”

Victim/witness to interpreter: “(He) keeps sending people to my house, but I do not want that. I want you to tell the judge, to tell the accused that he cannot send anyone to my house any more.”

Through the interpretation, the judge understands that the defendant sends people to the victim to intimidate her or to convince her to take him back. In fact, it is customary in the cultural area concerned for the perpetrator’s family to contact the victim’s family after a conflict or dispute, asking for forgiveness and reconciliation in order to avoid acts of revenge and legal disputes.

This scenario is first played out as it actually happened. It is then repeated with the aim of incorporating the implicit information about cultural practice to avoid misinterpretation. Each time a new student interprets, the other participants remain in their roles. A scene is typically rehearsed three or four times until a satisfactory result is achieved for all involved. Students may try various methods, including intervention, explication and modification. In this case, the best solution was to add a supplementary explication. The interpreter’s intervention (on the fourth rehearsal) was both non-verbal and verbal: he interpreted what had been said, then turned to the judge to add information about the cultural context; via body language, he signalled that he was now speaking in his own name. The court had more information at its disposal, which might have been important for its assessment of the issues and the outcome of the proceedings.

This training is based on the principle that language and utterances can mean anything or nothing depending on the context. Many things are communicated in a dialogue situation that are not expressly verbalised but are nevertheless part of language and culture.

The technique of treating a situation or topic as discourse teaches students to recognise how certain topics or actions influence their internal processes and perception of a topic or social occurrence. This can also be done by looking at a situation from different perspectives, e.g. those of the perpetrator, victim, witness or relation. The goal is to improve their capacity of perception.

Training with law students

Interpreting classes are particularly attractive to students when they are interdisciplinary. For the TRANSLAW research project,2 universities in four countries are exploring ways of integrating interpretation into law clinics, and setting up transcultural law clinics for criminal justice. The work consists of several phases, one of which includes joint courses for interpreting and law students. Students taking the joint class ‘Questioning Techniques: Criminological and interpreting perspectives’ at the University of Vienna practised criminological processes together, and learned about the possibilities and limitations of interpreter-mediated communication.

They looked at the main strategies used in legal questioning settings from the perspectives of criminology and interpreting. Law students learned to steer interactions and to determine the facts of a case. This included preparing and planning interviews, and learning how to verify the results of an interrogation. Various factors influence the communication process: the person leading the interview, the interpreter, their environment, their assessment of the person being interviewed, the questioning technique. Observation plays a key role.

It was helpful for law and interpreting students to analyse the situation, actions and strategies together. Interpreting students learnt about the needs of the people conducting interviews, how to understand the behaviour of people in an interview scenario through observation, and different questioning styles and techniques. They also found out how legal experts observe and interpret non-verbal communication signals, such as gaze, an increase or decrease in nodding, leg movements and pitch, from a criminological perspective. Gaining a precise understanding of the tasks of the other people involved in an interaction, and practising communicative techniques in advance, helped them to manage their own behaviour, and assess and explain the possibilities and limitations of their work in the context.

The use of theatre pedagogy in this interdisciplinary class allowed students to experience the perspective of professions they might work with closely in their future careers. The professions face similar challenges with regard to evaluating and shaping communication. The fact that they employ this understanding differently makes the interaction of the two groups especially interesting.


1 Boal, A (1993) Theater of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group

2 ‘Exploring Legal Interpreting Service Paths and Transcultural Law Clinics for Persons suspected or accused of crime’, DG Justice, JUST-AG-2016, Grant Agreement no. 760157

Mira Kadrić is Professor of Interpreting Studies and Didactics of Translation at the University of Vienna. Her research work focuses on dialogue interpreting in legal, political and diplomatic settings