The supposedly professional sign interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjies, who was in charge of translating what the US President Barack Obama and other authorities said during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service has been accused of using invented signs which do not make up for any known variety of sign language in the world. The deaf community in general, as well as professional sign interpreters and specialists, have spoken their minds in the media, regarding what happened on Monday in Johannesburg a humiliating and disrespectful experience.
The first comments about the fake sign interpreter took place on Twitter, when members of the Deaf community, who sign on a regular basis, recognised that the interpreter was not actually using sign language, but rather making up signs of his own. Francois Deysel, a South African Sign Language interpreter commented on this social network, stating that the fake sign interpreter was making a mockery of the profession.
Authorities reacted to the event as well. Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman to be elected to the South African Parliament accused the fake interpreter of using useless signs on Twitter and demanded that somebody got him off the stage.
A Fake Sign Language
Those who are most familiarised with sign language disregarded suggestions trying to explain what happened based on the use of an uncommon variety of the language with which few are familiarised or by saying that there had been a problem with the auto-cue. Braam Jordaan, board member of the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section, explained that the fake interpreter’s signs had no hand structure and that he did not accompany the signing with facial expressions and body language, both key elements which are regularly used to convey the emotions of the speakers. Others commented on the strange and repetitive rhythm of the signing and added that, no matter what was being said by President Obama and the other authorities, the signs did not seem to change.
An Old Problem
Collins Chabane, member of the South African government, stated that they are already investigating the issue. However, the process has been delayed by the great amount of work that Mandela’s funeral and public body viewing implies as regards organisation, security and paperwork.
Druchen stated that the fake interpreter had already been hired to work in other events. Last year, he signed in an event attended by Jacob Zuma, the South African president himself. At the time, the Federation for the Deaf prepared a report which was then submitted to the African National Congress, but no response was received. The plans now include filing a new complaint and come up with a solution which can be used as a warning for any other person who is thinking about doing interpreting without the appropriate knowledge and qualifications.