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The Fake Interpreter at Mandela's Memorial Service

More than 90 world leaders were present at Nelson Mandela's memorial service, which had its fair share of faux pas. South Africa's president Jacob Zuma, and the Obama, Cameron, Schmidt were booed after being caught taking a ‘selfie’ at the service. Then there was the fake sign-language interpreter!

Yes, Thamsanqa Jantjie, the Mandela memorial interpreter was fake. He was not using any recognizable sign language. Writing on Limping Chicken, a deaf news blog, Professor Graham Turner, Chair of Translation & Interpreting Studies at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh pointed out that:

He didn’t use South African Sign Language. In fact, he didn’t use any language. What he produced there was 100% authentic gibberish.Lost 

Thamsanqa Jantjie has claimed to have suffered from a schizophrenic episode that made him see angels and hear voices.

And then allegations surfaced that the ‘interpreter’ who stood a few meters away from world's leaders faced a murder charge in 2003.

The South African government has apologised for any offense caused by the sign-language interpreter.

Blogging on Thought Leader, South Africa writer Sarah Bitten pointed out that the fake interpreter showed the world that in South Africa you do not have to have any ability whatsoever to get a job:

In South Africa, the signing man told the world, you don’t actually have to know what you are doing in order to get a job. You don’t have to have any ability whatsoever, as long as it looks, to most, as though you can go through the motions — whether you are a teacher, a police officer, a bureaucrat, a government official or (as some have suggested) a state president.

There are those who see through you and complain, but they are ignored. Ours is not a culture of accountability. So one gig leads to the next. You’ve done it before so you get to do it again, because everyone in a position of power agrees that the emperor’s new threads are stylish. You stand there and tell us that the appearance of something becomes more important than the substance of it.

Many people wonder what he was saying. Several interpreters have emerged online to interpret him. YouTube user This is Genius posted humorous video below to show what the fake interpreter actually said:

Professor Graham listed 10 lessons from the fake interpreter saga.

1. Using a sign language fluently is not something one can do just by waving one’s hands around. Sign languages are grammatically-structured, rule-governed systems like all other natural human languages. You can’t produce meaningful signing off the cuff and – equally importantly – you can’t understand it spontaneously just by looking.

2. If you can’t sign, but require interpreting, you need reliable processes to help you identify effective provision. Interpreting isn’t a game: it should be run on a professional basis. This time, we saw a spectacular insult to the world’s Deaf people: but no-one died. Worldwide, every day, the result of inadequate interpreting leads to poor schooling, imprisonment, unemployment and health disparities. This must stop.

3. Without proper training, screening and regulation, people can and will take advantage. Even in countries like the UK, where sign language interpreting has become increasingly professionalised since the 1980s, smooth operators (who can talk the talk but not sign the sign) are legion. If you can’t sign, they may appear wholly plausible and be wholly bogus. Don’t guess and you won’t be fooled.

On Twitter, shocked users used the hashtag #fakeinterpreter to share their reactions to the revelation:

Apparently, it was not his first time as this YouTube video from 2012 shows:

  • Pingback: Parallels with ‘Fake’ Mandela Signer Hiring Problem?

  • Rami Alhames

    What a shame of South Africa poor organizing for a great man funeral, though they had time and resources to figure things better.

  • Ricardo Martinez

    I need help with that which a true sign language interpreter re-translated, above; add what I am missing:

    You came in like a wrecking ball…freshly chopped to cut in a
    hot boil for around fifteen minutes
    put the onions add some chicken
    and boy, it will cook nicely psycho
    killer ….you say. fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, o, and run,
    run, run, run run, run away, o ho, o, ho, ho, ho, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay cook some
    rice put on on boiling water turned it off put the lid off help, I need somebody, help, I need somebody,
    help, just anybody, anybody

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