A fake interpreter?

by Jeanette Sakel

The story about the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service is intriguing. When I watch snippets of his signing in the news, my first thought was ‘wow – either South African Sign language has no facial expressions and very abrupt signs, or this guy is a just performing a sort of show’. I don’t know much sign language (other than baby signing), but I’m well aware that sign language interpreters use facial expressions alongside arm movements.

Now, it turns out that this guy was not signing in the strict sense. Deaf people from across the world (and most crucially also from within South Africa) have said that they did not understand what he was saying, and that he even got quite simple signs ‘wrong’ (i.e. not knowing the sign for Mandela!). There are reports that all of his signs were arbitrary, but I’m wondering if he, at least, got some of them right? In any case: what on earth was going on?

– was he over-confident (it’s reported that he had done this kind of work before, and it was claimed that deaf people had  complained about him before)?

– did he just have the right connections and couldn’t pass down this opportunity for fame at any cost?

– did he have a Schizophrenia attack (which is one of his claims: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/12/mandela-memorial-interpreter-schizophrenia-sign-language)

– did he perform a ‘Catherine Tate’?

Maybe a little bit of all of the above?

Now, thinking about how I would feel at the receiving end of Catherine Tate’s joke, I very much empathise with the deaf people who must feel they’ve been made major fools in this saga…

So: speaking/signing another language = good. Speaking/signing a little of another language is fine for communication, but just ‘getting the accent right (or making movements with your arms) is maybe not the way to proceed….

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