Deaf Association Calls Out “Fake” Mandela Memorial Interpreter

The Deaf Federation of South Africa is complaining to the government about the onstage interpreter at Tuesday’s Nelson Mandela memorial who, it says wasn't using actual sign language.

The Deaf Federation of South Africa is complaining to the government about the onstage interpreter at Tuesday’s Nelson Mandela memorial, who it says wasn’t using actual sign language.

Nelson Mandela’s life was symbolic of the ongoing fight for civil rights for people worldwide. Ironically, a situation at the South African leader’s memorial on Tuesday raised major concerns among one group in the country: the deaf.

According to the Deaf Federation of South Africa, the main onstage interpreter at the memorial wasn’t actually signing, and people watching at home couldn’t follow the proceedings. More details on the situation below:

The problem: The association says the interpreter—a man who has yet to be identified—was not using sign language, leading many in the community to complain on social media and through other outlets. “This man himself knows he cannot sign and he had the guts to stand on an international stage and do that,” Ingrid Parkin, the principal of the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg, told the Associated Press. Parkin and other deaf professionals in the country say that they’ve fielded numerous complaints about the interpreter, who stood next to world leaders such as President Barack Obama at the event and was supposed to be translating their remarks. As the video above from the deaf news blog Limping Chicken shows, that interpreter was using completely different signs and expressions from another on-screen interpreter shown in an inset. A commenter on the blog post noted that the interpreter has been used in other official events in South Africa, including this speech by President Jacob Zuma from 2012.

The reaction: In a detailed Facebook post on the matter, DeafSA National Director Bruno Druchen explained that the interpreter in question failed to use facial expressions and elements of sign language that are often as complex as any used in spoken language. “The signs (self-invented signs) the interpreter used are not used in South African Sign Language and it is a total mockery of the language,” Druchen wrote. “The interpreter did not use the established, recognised signs for President Mandela, President Zuma, President Thabo Mbeki, and South Africa, amongst many others. This proves that he is not involved in the deaf community and doesn’t know South African Sign Language.” Druchen’s wife, Wilma Newhoult-Druchen, who is a member of the South African Parliament and vice president of the World Federation of the Deaf, said on Twitter that the interpreter was “causing international embarrassment,” while the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters sent out a tweet in support of DeafSA. In a statement, the U.S.-based National Association of the Deaf also denounced the situation: “The NAD wishes to emphasize that in all such situations the interpreter must be vetted and chosen on the basis of qualifications to clearly, accurately, impartially, and effectively convey what is being communicated during any such event,” the group said.

Next steps: Speaking to AP, Druchen said the association would file a complaint with the African National Congress. “We want to make a statement that this is a warning to other sign language interpreters who are fake and go about interpreting,” he told AP. “I am hoping the South African government will take notice of this.”

A top official says the government is aware of the situation and investigating, but it is currently overwhelmed with the planning for Mandela’s funeral this weekend.

(YouTube screenshot)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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