Nelson Mandela

"They're screaming their hands off!"

So outraged was the deaf community that the buzz on the Internet was “they’re screaming their hands off!”

That inappropriate, albeit humorous, quip is in response to the fake sign language interpreter at revered South African statesman Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

Sign language differs from nation to nation, and sometimes region to region, but South Africans who know the language knew the interpreter’s signing was nonsense for the stadium full of mourners in Johannesburg and a worldwide television audience.

The dead giveaway? His face is stoic. Real interpreters use facial expressions to convey the speaker’s meaning and often mouth words to benefit those who read lips.

Interpreter Thamsanqu Jantjile also failed to use recognized signs for Mandela, South African President Jacob Zuma, or his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Few of his gestures were recognizable signs, igniting security concerns that a fraud was allowed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with world leaders at a momentous event.

A December 11, CNN story quoted mid-memorial tweet from South African sign language interpreter Francois Deysel: “Please can someone ask the interpreter to step down from stage, it is embarrassing and making a mockery of our profession.”

Subsequent investigation revealed that Jantjie, who is being treated for mental illness, was hired through an interpreting company and he had interpreted other events. Whether he ever received training to interpret for the deaf is unknown.

Obviously, mistakes were made.

Fortunately, people who need to hire an interpreter for the deaf for an event need not make the same mistake.

Contact Disability Network/Lakeshore at (616) 396-5326 to seek a recommendation. Our agency has contacts in the deaf community who know the best interpreters and their specialties, ranging from medicine and law to education.