The Faux Sign Language Interpreter Was an Insult to Deaf People – and to Mandela

This morning, I had about a dozen emails in my inbox, all about the same story: How the sign language interpreter who was interpreting Barack Obama’s speech at yesterday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela was a fake. 

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This morning, I had about a dozen emails in my inbox, all about the same story: How the sign language interpreter who was interpreting Barack Obama’s speech at yesterday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela was a fake. An unqualified hanger-on flailing his hands into gibberish in front of a global television audience.

Since I’m a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) and native signer who dabbles in ASL and Deaf activism, it’s no wonder that so many of my friends thought of me when they heard the story. But as much as I’d like to be able to give them answers about how this could happen, I’m coming up blank.

Faking sign language is nothing new. When I was a kid, other kids would make fun of my family by flapping their hands around. But even the meanest among these kids never pretended to actually know sign language or to be communicating in any way. The fake-signing usually lasted for a few seconds. But the man who interpreted President Obama’s remarks yesterday kept up his ruse for the length of the speech. Even worse, according to sources in South Africa, he has done this before at major events.

One of the first questions people ask is, how would you spot a sign language fraud? I'm fluent in American Sign Language, so I wouldn't necessarily have known that Obama’s interpreter was not speaking South African Sign Language had I been watching yesterday. One clue might have been his lack of facial expressions, which (as you should all know by now) is an integral part of signing.

But wasn’t there someone, anyone, on the scene who was able to spot this impostor? Who was in charge of hiring the interpreter for this hugely important event? More importantly, were there any Deaf people there who complained or asked an event organizer what the heck was going on?

In the United States, professional sign language interpreters go through a rigorous training and certification process before they can be hired to interpret. Many have years of experience before they tackle a task as serious and pressure-filled as interpreting for the leader of the free world. There are similar procedures in South Africa, but the African National Congress appears to have ignored them, despite previous complaints from the country's Deaf Federation. Does the government not have a list of ready, qualified interpreters who they can call on? Or was it a last-minute afterthought, akin to someone shouting “Is there a doctor in the house?” when there’s a choking person in a restaurant? When you’re in need, nobody stops to ask the man raising his hand and claiming to be a doctor whether he happens to have his medical school diploma with him. And only someone with a medical degree would have the courage to call them out on their incorrect CPR.

It’s particularly ironic that this faux interpreter appeared at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Mandela was sui generis in his work to get rights for black South Africans, for women, and for other oppressed minority groups. But at his own memorial service, one of those minority groups was humiliated and disenfranchised by this impostor and by the person or people who allowed him to lie about his credentials. If someone had shown up purporting to be, say, a Russian translator, would that person been have been permitted to go up on stage and begin babbling away in a nonsense language without anybody noticing? Somehow I doubt it.

One of the most basic errors an interpreter can make is selectively deciding which things to interpret. For example, if an interpreter signing a play decided they would only translate one character’s lines while ignoring the others, that would be grounds for getting fired — or for never being hired to interpret again. The idea behind this philosophy is that, just as hearing people can go somewhere, overhear multiple conversations, and then decide which ones to ignore or eavesdrop on, deaf people should have those same options.

But simply choosing not to translate at all – or, in this case, allowing someone to denigrate and mock sign language without any oversight, while calling it translation – is one of the most offensive things that can be done to the Deaf community. Allowing this man to stand next to Obama and make up fake signs without anyone taking accountability is essentially the same as saying, “You don’t deserve to know what’s going on here, and you don’t deserve to be included.” Nelson Mandela, I suspect, would never have stood for that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.