The man giving a sign language interpretation to the world at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was a fake whose gestures meant nothing, it has been revealed.
Bruno Druchen The national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa said the unnamed man seen on television next to leaders like US President Barack Obama “was moving his hands around but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for.”
The scandal is another indication of bad organisation of the historic memorial service at a huge soccer stadium. Other difficulties included public transport breakdowns which hindered mourners from getting to the event and a faulty audio system that prevented many of the tens of thousands in the stadium from hearing the leaders’ speeches. In an apparent security failure, police did not search the first wave of crowds arriving at the stadium.
Collins Chabane, one of South Africa’s two presidency ministers, said the government is investigating the sign language translator but has been overwhelmed with work preparing for Mandela’s funeral on Sunday in his hometown of Qunu.
Four sign language experts, including Mr Druchen, said the man was not signing in South African or American sign languages and could not have been signing in any other known sign language because there was no structure to his arm and hand movements. South African sign language covers all of the country’s 11 official languages, according to the federation.
Ingrid Parkin, principal of the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg, said she hads received complaints from the deaf community from Canada to China about the man and that his movements look “like he’s signing gibberish.” He also used no facial expression to convey the emotions of the leaders, a key element of sign language interpretation.
“This man himself knows he cannot sign and he had the guts to stand on an international stage and do that,” Ms Parkin said.
Nicole Du Toit, an official sign language interpreter who also watched the broadcast, said the man was an embarrassment. “It was horrible, an absolute circus, really, really bad,” she said. “Only he can understand those gestures.”
The man also did sign interpretation at an event last year that was attended by South African president Jacob Zuma, Druchen said. At that appearance, a deaf person in the audience videotaped the event and gave it to the federation for the deaf, which analysed the video, prepared a report about it and a submitted a formal complaint to the ANC, Mr Druchen said.
In their complaint, the federation suggested that the man should take the five years of training needed to become a qualified sign language interpreter in South Africa. But the ANC never responded.
Mr Druchen said a fresh complaint will be filed to them about the interpreter with a demand for an urgent meeting.
“We want to make a statement that this is a warning to other sign language interpreters who are fake and go about interpreting,” he said. “I am hoping the South African government will take notice of this.”
Bogus sign language interpreters are a problem in South Africa, because people who know a few signs try to pass themselves off as experts, said Ms Parkin. And those hiring them usually don not sign, so they have no idea that the people they are hiring cannot do the job, she said.
“They advertise themselves as interpreters because they know 10 signs and they can make some quick money,. It is plain and simple abuse of the deaf community, they are taking advantage of the deaf community to make money.”