In the sign language interpreting world there is an ongoing uproar, due to the obvious inability of the sign language interpreter used when U.S. President Barack Obama was speaking during the memorial for South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela. According to the sign language community of interpreters, the person that was used during the memorial was a fake, as his signs were repetitive, his facial expressions did not change and the structure of his body movements and his hands were not what one would expect from a sign language interpreter. He was not using the accepted international or even South African sign language, according to Sheena Walters of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters.
In the follow-up news, it was reported that the sign language interpreter claims that he has a mental illness and suffered a “schizophrenic episode” during the time that he was interpreting from President Obama. Later during a radio interview he said he was happy with his performance and that he has been interpreting for years.
Beside the point
Who should be blamed and who should be believed in what had just happened? The memorial was broadcast around the world. The sign language interpreters are very vocal about their disgust. The deaf community of South Africa had complained about the interpreter’s previous work and doing so again.
The big issue is that it happened at such as big event, a worldwide event. If there had been previous complaints against the deaf signing of Mr. Thamsanqa Jantjie before, why was he still chosen for this grand occasion?
During the television broadcast of the event, there was a professional sign language interpreter shown on the left side of the television screen, according to those who have seen it, which made it more glaring to see that the actions of the Mandela memorial sign language interpreter on stage with the U.S. President was not correctly deaf signing.
The World Association of Sign Language Interpreters was formed in 1975 and has local chapters in several countries, including South Africa. Together with the World Federation of the Deaf, they released a joint statement after what transpired during the memorial for Mr. Mandela.
The statement pointed out the need to have quality services from interpreters used in public events and that it is the responsibility of the organizers that the deaf audience has access to information, according to Article 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The statement further adds that organizers should cooperate with the local Deaf Organization and that only trained and qualified interpreters should be used in such occasions.
According to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. Code of Conduct, it is the sole responsibility of the interpreter to strive to remain unbiased toward the content they are working on and not to alter or modify its tone or meaning and may request a copy of the materials prior to the assignment. The interpreter should have the professional knowledge and skills required for the specific situation where his services are required. This is where things should start.