Last month, Nelson Mandela passed away. Mr. Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule, was one of the most beloved people in his country. Thus, there was no doubt that his memorial would be well-attended by not only people from South Africa, but also some of the world’s most prominent leaders such as President Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, according to this article, a fraudulent sign language interpreter was hired to “interpret” for the deaf. This person, a 34 year old man named Thamsanqa Jantjie, apparently performed meaningless symbols and gestures on stage. And, as the image for this blog post indicates, he somehow had the privilege of being inches away from President Obama and other leaders who spoke at that podium. (Side notes: what’s up with how close he is to the podium? Whenever I’ve had a podium-interpreter situation, the interpreters have typically been a healthy distance away from the speaker. And also, usually for something like this, you would want two interpreters…)

I took a look at the video from the linked New York Times article. While I don’t know the South African sign language, the gestures Mr. Jantjie performed certainly didn’t seem like a sign language: too many rhythmic activities, lack of facial or lip movement, too many calculated pauses, and so on.  I can certainly believe the experts’ judgement that this is a fake.

Bruno Druchen, the national director of DeafSA (a Johannesburg advocacy organization for the deaf), had this to say about the debacle:

This ‘fake interpreter’ has made a mockery of South African sign language and has disgraced the South African sign language-interpreting profession. […] The deaf community is in outrage.

Mr. Jantjie also failed to even perform the correct sign for Mr. Mandela. That doesn’t bode well … I mean, if there was any one sign to know, wouldn’t it be the one for Mr. Mandela?

But wait, there’s more! Check out this article, where Mr. Jantjie admits that he was hallucinating during the talks (“angels falling from the sky” kind of stuff). We also learn that he’s receiving treatment for schizophrenia. In addition, the company that supplied Mr. Jantjie — at a bargain rate — disappeared. Somehow, up until now, they had been getting away with providing substandard sign language interpreting services.

There is also news that Mr. Jantjie has a criminal history. This article mentioned that he was part of a group that murdered two men in 2003, yet somehow didn’t go trial because he was deemed mentally unfit. He also is accused of a plethora of other offenses dating back to 1994.

Murdering two men? Mentally unfit? A schizophrenic person?

That doesn’t sound like the kind of person I’d like to see up there. Hiring someone like him to be an interpreter for the memorial of possibly the most important person in South African history? I’m glad that I can trust my own interpreters here at Williams College.