Daily Maverick

The Memorial Signer: Lost in translation of a broken government language

The sign language fiasco at Tuesday's memorial for Nelson Mandela is a scar on a country that should be focusing on Madiba's legacy and thinking about the state of the nation. Instead, GREG NICOLSON finds himself at a press briefing where no one wants to accept responsibility for the mess, embarrassed that the government isn't even embarrassed.

Here’s how to screw up one of the most important events in South Africa’s history: invite leaders from across the world and put them on a stage in front of over 50,000 people. Beam the event to billions of viewers across the world. Let the leaders speak, honour this great country and its first democratic president. But here’s the kicker: put a bogus sign language interpreter from a dodgy company next to them. It will take a while, but eventually deaf viewers will be outraged at the dude doing the Macarena next to Barack Obama and Sika Lekhekhe next to Jacob Zuma.

Then, get a deputy minister from a hapless ministry to explain it all away. Boom! All of a sudden, the world’s media devouring SA like termites get something other than the legacy of the world’s greatest statesman to report.

Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, drew the short straw and tried to explain the matter on Thursday at the SABC’s Auckland Park offices in Johannesburg. Yes, Thamsanqa Jantjie, AKA “the sign language guy”, wasn’t really making sense. Yes, mistakes were made, she said. Bogopane-Zulu argued however that this country is so linguistically complex and sign language so varied across urban and rural, black and white divides that basically no one can be called a fake.

He could speak sign language with his peers but he is not a professional sign language expert,” she said. “The English was a bit too much for him.”

Bogopane-Zulu said he is a natural Xhosa speaker and the job did not specify which language he would be translating. Oops! It seems the deputy minister’s party, the ANC, also must have failed to ask about his English when they employed him for key events such as the Mangaung conference to interpret on the stage.

Does anybody understand him? Did we find someone that understands him?” she asked. “We will find someone.” Sign language experts across the country have rubbished Jantjie’s performance. Andries van Niekerk from the National Institute for the Deaf told The Star that he “was clearly not competent” didn’t use hand shapes or facial expressions as one usually would.

Other deaf viewers, from politicians to celebrities to academic experts, have all rubbished the translation.

Jantjie has acknowledged he messed up. He told the newspaper he is living with schizophrenia, started hallucinating and making signs that did not make sense. “There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation. I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry, it’s the situation I have found myself in.” He has reportedly been in hospital for the condition and allegedly has a history of violent behaviour. Language experts will surely look through his past work to see whether Tuesday is part of a trend or a once-off.

Yet Bogopane-Zulu says it’s not an embarrassment. Even though Jantjie admitted his translations were false, ludicrously, the deputy minister argued that the experts should do some more research. She wanted to make it a poor versus rich, black versus white thing. You know, there are just so many differences in this country that basically no one can talk to each other anyway. For example, she said that those who haven’t been fortunate enough to go to school to learn sign language would figure out their own codes of communication. They will obviously all be different.

Bogopane-Zulu emphasised that an official code is still being developed and an official school curriculum on sign language will only be incorporated in 2014. She also tried to defend the state’s respect for the deaf. How many other countries have the news translated into sign language? But that isn’t the question here.

What she refused to answer is how someone with only the minimum qualifications could be procured to translate at the highest level for the state. No one is claiming responsibility for the fiasco and government is tight-lipped on who is at fault. Bogopane-Zulu said Mandela’s memorial service was organised by multiple departments and a task team will try to get to the bottom of the procurement mess. It also has to ask why the company Jantjie works for, SA Interpreters, was used. It’s bogus, she said, and its executives have disappeared. Why didn’t anyone raise a red flag when SA Interpreters were charging R850 a day while most other experts charge over R1200 an hour?

Bogopane-Zulu wouldn’t be drawn on whether this is an ANC problem, you know, patronage at the expense of the taxpayer. In fact, she said this is Mandela’s legacy in effect even after his death. Now that sign language is on everyone’s lips, we all know more about the struggles of people living with disabilities!

But Mandela showed profound respect to South Africans. The callousness of the state to hire an unqualified translator and beam him across the world does the opposite. Now, when we should be talking about Mandela’s legacy and the state of South Africa at this important time, we’re at press briefings about “the sign language guy”. Refusing to accept responsibility for the fiasco makes matters worse. Like so many other issues we face, the government wants to spin its way out of the mess by using a web of obfuscation, task teams and exploiting divisions.

This isn’t an ode to Madiba, but a pathetic scar on the country that should instead be mourning. DM

Photo: India’s President Pranab Mukherjee speaks at the podium as a sign language interpreter (R) punches the air beside him during a memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. The fake sign language interpreter took to the stage during Tuesday’s memorial for anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, gesticulating gibberish before a global audience of millions and outraging deaf people across the world. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach.

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