The world is buzzing with news of the “fake” sign language interpreter at the Mandela Memorial service, who awkwardly gestured for nearly four hours without producing any coherent information while world leaders gave speeches commemorating the death of Nelson Mandela. The Deaf community is outraged, demanding an explanation for this grossly-under qualified interpreter that denied them an opportunity to participate in this momentous moment in history and poorly represented Deaf culture and the interpreting profession as a whole. Today, the interpreter’s name has been revealed as Thamsanqa Jantjie, who explained his poor performance by claiming to have been struck by a schizophrenic episode during his interpretation on stage. While this would be a legitimate excuse were it true, schizophrenia hardly explains the multiple unethical components that led to and came after this scandalous event. Our analysis paints a different portrait of this unacceptable lapse of ethics and provides our seven problems with the Nelson Mandela interpreter:
1. Jantjie’s initial self-report of his (nonsensical) performance was positive.
In an interview with Johannesburg’s Talk Radio 702, Jantjie defended his interpretation. When asked if he was happy with his performance at the Mandela Memorial, Jantjie responded, “Absolutely, absolutely. I think that I’ve been a champion of sign language.” In addition, he expressed confusion that people were complaining about his interpretation, stating “he could not understand why people were complaining now, rather than after other events.” Later, in his AP interview, Jantjie “insisted… that he was doing proper sign-language interpretation of the speeches of world leaders.”
2. Jantjie’s weak English skills.
Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, deputy minister of women, children and people with disabilities, stated, “For you to be able to interpret, you must understand the language that’s being spoken at the podium. He is Xhosa-speaking as his first language; the English was a bit too much for him. So, yes, he could not translate from English to sign language.”
3. Jantjie should have been teamed with a second interpreter.
Another question that surfaces is why Thamsanqa Jantjie was not interpreting with a team or second interpreter. Because of the incredible amount of stamina interpreting requires from both the mind and body, standard South African interpreting protocol requires that lengthy interpreting jobs are performed by multiple interpreters, alternating every twenty minutes. However, Jantjie remained on stage for the entire ceremony, which lasted over three hours. The general purpose of this standard is to maintain the concentration level of the working interpreter by allowing the interpreter to take frequent breaks. This protocol also insures that if one of the interpreters is suddenly rendered unable to interpret, another interpreter is available and ready to take their place. If the agency responsible for providing interpreters for the Mandala Memorial had followed this basic interpreting protocol and sent Thamsanqa Jantjie with a team, the other interpreter could have immediately taken over at the onset of Jantjie’s schizophrenic episode, and the Deaf community would not have been deprived the opportunity to participate in this momentous occasion in history.
4. Jantjie received complaints from previous jobs.
In an interview Jantjie asserted he “has previously interpreted at many events without anyone complaining.” However, the Deaf Federation of South Africa claims they filed a complaint with the ANC after Jantjie’s poor interpretation at previous events. Videos have surfaced of Jantjie interpreting a song at the ANC’s Mangaung policy conference, where he “pumped his arms up and down” and often merely made gestures that imitated the performer’s.
5. Complaints of Jantjie’s incompetence began at the start of the interpretation.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jantjie stated that “his hallucinations began while he was interpreting.” This statement implies that there should have been a segment of coherent interpreting, albeit brief, before Jantjie’s hallucinations rendered his “interpretation” incomprehensible. Yet all reports of the incident indicate Jantijie’s interpretation was nonsensical from the moment he raised his hands. There is no evidence that indicates a sudden plummet in his performance at the beginning of the ceremony, which would be expected if Jantjie was overcome by hallucinations while interpreting.
6. Agency that hired Jantjie “vanished.”
Several issues are arising related to the agency that provided Thamsanqa Jantjie as an interpreter. Jantjie maintains that he was employed by SA Interpreters, an agency that was hired by ANC for the Mandela Memorial. The Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu has stated that “the translation company offered sub-standard services [and] the rate they paid the translator was far below the normal levels.” Efforts to contact SA Interpreters has been unsuccessful, and the agency appears to have disappeared. Oddly, the address and phone number Jantjie supplied in an interview both turned out to be false. According to MSN News, “AP journalists who visited the address of the company that Jantjie provided found a different company there, whose managers said they knew nothing about SA Interpreters.” It is suspected this agency has been supplying unqualified interpreters for a lengthy amount of time. Bogopane-Zulu contends, “We managed to get hold of them, and then we spoke to them wanting some answers and they vanished into thin air. It’s a clear indication that over the years they have managed to get away with this.”
7. Schizophrenia episode questionable.
A University College London medical expert has weighed in on the controversy, claiming the gestures produced by Jantjie did not look like they were caused by schizophrenia. Jo Atkinson, clinical psychologist and researcher at the Center for Deafness, Cognition and Language attests, “The disruption of sign language in people with schizophrenia takes many forms, but this does not look like anything I have seen in signers with psychosis.”
While the Mandela Memorial interpreter incident was a tragedy to the many Deaf people who attended the event and expected to be provided with accurate interpretation, this event has drawn international attention to the issue of qualified sign language interpreters. Thamsanqa Jantjie is a painful reminder of the importance of qualified, certified interpreters in South Africa, the U.S., and around the world.