Nelson Mandela: Have Sign Language Interpreters Disappointed the World?

December 12, 2013

The news of the “fake sign language interpreter” traveled the globe. But what of the everyday failings of systems that leave access by the wayside through lack of scrutiny? Brandon Arthur calls for specific action by sign language interpreters to monitor and ethically deploy qualified interpreters.

The terrible cocktail of “schizophrenia,” unethical business leadership, and uninformed government decision-makers that lead to the sign language interpreting debacle at Mandela’s memorial service is a tragedy.

As a sign language interpreter, I cringe at the thought that as a field, we are responsible for the world’s distraction from the celebration of one of the planet’s most widely recognized human rights leaders and for yet another injustice served up to the Deaf Community.

The question that continues to roll around in my head is after the tsunami of sensationalism, swarming armchair quarterbacks, and CYA puffery blows over is, what will change?

While Thamsanqa Jantjie is the current face of the issue, unqualified sign language interpreters deploying or being deployed into local communities around the globe is a longstanding and widespread problem. A problem that necessitates the cooperation of a multiplicity of industry stakeholders willing to put down their nursing agenda and be accountable for the breakdowns in the system that continue to allow this problem to persist.

Are we courageous enough as field, both practitioner and organization, to make the hard decisions necessary to truly eradicate the problem?

If we come away from this debacle truly resolved to create meaningful resolution to the issue of unqualified sign language interpreters infringing on the human rights of Deaf people, perhaps we should consider taking action on the following:

  1. Insist that industry stakeholders publicly and actively subscribe to upholding the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
  2. Incorporate the applicable aspects of the UNCRPD as part of the ethical practices system for working sign language interpreters. Further, to insist on more aggressive and timely actions for violations.
  3. Found a national organization to create, uphold and promote standards of practice for businesses deploying sign language interpreters.
  4. Establish a coalition responsible for a partnership between national associations serving the Deaf community, national organizations serving sign language interpreters, and organizations responsible for the public awareness of the rights of Deaf people and the roles and responsibility of sign language interpreters.
  5. Insist on local partnerships between Deaf and sign language interpreting organizations that result in the perpetuation of native perspectives among practicing sign language interpreters.

Care to add?

Thanks to Mandela for doing in death what he did in life, using his existence to raise awareness of the atrocities, injustices, and disadvantages suffered at the hand of privilege while working to make the world a more inhabitable place.

Let’s not allow the memory of Mandela’s memorial service to be one where the field of sign language interpreting disappointed the world. Let it be one where we honor Mandela’s life by rising from the ashes galvanized to end the rampant problem of unqualified practitioners infringing upon the human rights of Deaf people.

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59 Comments on "Nelson Mandela: Have Sign Language Interpreters Disappointed the World?"

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Member
Grace Rupani

Hi Brandon, love the spirit behind this – (editors note, you do have a duplicate paragraph 🙂
I VERY SINCERELY hope that more countries especially our own ascribe to the values in the UNCRPD and there is more accountability in the future.
Grace

Member
John Parabellum
I think Jantjie is just an symptom of a larger disease. The disease where Hearing people who do not know a damned thing or do not give a damn about Deaf people are able to decide what is a reasonable accommodation on providing communication access for the Deaf. I think the people who contacted the fraudulent company that employs Jantjie did not really know anything about Interpreters and probably picked the company with the lowest price. If a reputable company had been contacted, I am sure at least 4 interpreters would have been assigned to the task and they would… Read more »
Member
Kellie Harsh Evetts
While I agree, in principle, with your perspective – I live in a small rural community that has no certified interpreters. And, because our Deaf community refuses to advocate for themselves, we are left with a dilemma. Do we have functions without any accessibility for our Deaf community OR do we try and do our best to give as accurate and clear a message with non certified (some would say “unqualified”) interpreters as we can? If there are qualified interpreters available (as there obviously should have been for Mandela’s memorial), by all means use them. But, if they aren’t available… Read more »
bcolonomos
Member

Dear Kellie,

You raise an interesting point. I am not sure how to respond because I need to know what “because our Deaf community refuses to advocate for themselves” means. I know that there are communities where Deaf people are oppressed and uninformed. The term “refuse” implies that the community has options, but intentionally not exercise them.

Would you be willing to explain this further. I am sure we can dialogue about your dilemma and perhaps come up with some resources, strategies, and/or solutions.

Looking forward to reading more!

Member
Terri Hayes
Betty, I think refuse might be a good word. I live in Rochester NY. There are plenty of Deaf people here who do not complain about interpreters they do not understand. These are well educated Deaf people, one would expect them to say *something* to *someone* if they are unhappy with the services they receive – but really, there are many who just assume the interpreters will be … not so great – because the majority of interpreters are… not so great. So the D/deaf do not complain (out loud, to the agencies, to the interpreters…). They do not even… Read more »
Member
Hartmut Teuber
Hi Betty, Kellie’s choice of the word does not need to be laid on the micro-gram scales. I am sure you understand the problem of the extreme passivity of deaf people in isolated communities. They are too used to a life with minimal and fake communication with hearing family members, co-workers, and neighbors. Often these isolated deaf folks don’t want to go to Deaf clubs or Deaf events. They feared to lose their privacy, accusing the Deaf community to be rumor breeding ground damaging the good name of its members. They also said, “hearing world better”, because they are left… Read more »
Member
Catherine Smith
Kellie, I agree with you. I also live in a mainly rural area. We do have mostly state certified and a few nationally certified interpreters. My question is how do people become qualified interpreters if they are not allowed to interpret?I think all of us remember the first time we interpreted and how we felt about mistakes we made. Mentoring by qualified interpreters could be part of the answer. We have to forget about the cutthroat competion for work that leaves unqualified interpreters out there with no means to become qualified other than their interpreting experiences. Of course, the ones… Read more »
Member
Terri Hayes
Catherine, once upon a time there were no professional interpreters. The Deaf community needed a way to communicate effectively with hearing people in their world – and so they found likely hearing candidates and encouraged them in their efforts learning to sign. As the person learned to sign (from the Deaf people) part of their learning – was to provide “he said” “she said” interpreting for the Deaf while in their company. The Deaf were not “put out” by the fact that the hearing person didn’t sign well – or wasn’t *really* an interpreter. The Deaf were just people, getting… Read more »
Member
Catherine Smith

So, if you can’t find any Deaf willing to teach you, only ITPs, how do you get the training to become good interpreters for the Deaf? I want to become a freaking good interpreter.

Member
Terri Hayes

Catherine, I am ASL4U.
Find me.
Terri Hayes

Member
Hit Terri Hayes up, she’s freaking awesome. IMO, she is one of 10 best ASL interpreters in the nation. Had her interpret for me many years ago when I was a teenager, not many people can read and detect my left handed fast fingerspelling. If there was something that she made a mistake, I would tell her and Terri, unlike many, never got defensive about it. She is good at what she does. Terri, it was so good to see your comments here – I did wonder whether if you’re doing great in Rochester -looks like Rochester has treated you… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Brandon, Perfect! We need action – and we need awareness. I just wrote a letter to my local newspaper that had reported on this issue. Perhaps we can all keep the momentum going by making it public! I’m including the text of my letter below – no guarantee of publication…. But I think the more letters we get out there … the better:) Thanks for your message! The media reported this one instance of an impostor who was “interpreting” for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. As a professional interpreter I can attest that throughout America other impostors are doing the… Read more »
Member
Kathe Michael
I agree, Stephanie, and want to really emphasize the fundamental importance of both qualified interpreters and native linguistic models for school age children. Even if every interpreter in the school system were certified, we could not provide the linguistic and cultural grounding that must come from the Deaf community itself. Without that social/cultural piece, Deaf children are deaf children, unaware of their rights and thus easily deprived of them. Educating the public, educational leaders, parents, and children: those are all major pieces, to be done by hearing and Deaf alike. This is not a moment for interpreters to wonder if… Read more »
Member
Cyndie Morin

I hope you don’t mind but I am sending a tweeked version of your letter to our newspapers. I’ve been an interpreter for over 25 years, being nationally certified in the educational setting. I’ve fought for the rights of our small, deaf community for years. We have to “get over ourselves” as interpreters and deny the requests that others, who are certified for that area, will do it justice so that the deaf client can have access to the proper information.

sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne

Cyndie – Glad you tweaked it and sent it on!!! Our goal is to share information and create awareness. Thanks:)

Member
Valerie Bernham
I’m a bit put-off by the title. How are Sign Language Interpreters disappointing the world? According to the articles I’ve read Mr. Jantjie is not a credentialed Sign Language Interpreter. He doesn’t appear to be a ‘signer’ either. No article I’ve read has specified the C.V. of the owners of the agency that hired him. Are they sign language interpreters as well? Which begs the question: Where does the blame belong? Credentialing/certifying entities because they’ve not championed the cause of educated, credentialed/certified interpreters? The Deaf Community for not insisting on legislation requiring specific qualifications? Or is it the responsibility of… Read more »
Member
Kirsten Nelson
I agree. It wasn’t a Professional Sign Language Interpreter who embarrassed our profession. It was somebody acting like an interpreter who embarrassed himself, and disappointed the Deaf world. It’s very unfortunate that this occurred, but it can only start a good conversation for those requesting interpreting services, and the agencies that hire and send interpreters to assignments; no matter what the assignment is, or who they are providing services for.
Member

I’d love to see some discussion on the use of Certified Deaf Interpreters. Wouldn’t this have been a beautiful event if a CDI had been on stage. Next time the whole world is watching, I’m hoping to see CDI/CI teams.
Thank you, Mandela for giving us the platform to make it happen.

Member
I am thrilled at all the media attention. Thank you, Mr Fake Interpreter, now identified as Thamsanqa Jantjie! His may be a sad case (schizophrenic or merely attention-obsessive), but the news frenzy is by and large handling the story fairly well. Tonight (12/12) on NBC Nightly, there was a report on the deplorable security surrounding the memorial service, with the interpreter as only part of the problem, but also a human interest report on the kindergarten KODA video which has gone viral, from Florida: the adorable girl who signed the songs for her Deaf parents at the school show, with… Read more »
Member
Patty Clark

I was talking to my PT this morning about this very same thing Bill and I agree wholeheartedly. This event was a blessing! It brought to the WORLD issues the World Deaf Community has endured for too long. I know that professional interpreters bemoan the fact that unqualified “signers” are perpetrating these injustices, but I am thankful that the Deaf Community throughout the World has been able to stand as ONE, have a VOICE and demonstrate via the use of qualified interpreters and through their own written words how to end this communication apartheid.

Well-said….

Member
Jennifer Whyman
I am going to disagree with you a little on this. I don’t think interpreters in general are responsible for this one man’s action. I live in Arizona and here we require all interpreters to have a license. We receive identification that needs to be in our possession at all times. If we are asked for our license and cannot show it, we can be dismissed from the assignment. For the general license, we must pass the national certification performance exam though the Registry of Interpeters for the Deaf. If the person is a new graduate from an interpreter training… Read more »
Member
Kirsten Nelson
##### applause applause##### I agree with Jennifer. This man’s actions didn’t reflect on my work today, or last week, and they really won’t tomorrow. I’m dually certified, state licensed, and I’m a 25 year veteran. I’m vetted. I also live in Arizona. Not every state requires licensure, but I do think other states want to follow our lead and start requiring it. Of the 9 Deaf people I interpreted for today not one compared me to him. They all did thank me, and asked that I return soon. Only 1 asked if I’d seen the story, and that was about… Read more »
Member
Jenny Ballew

I agree that it is inappropriate to lay blame at the feet of interpreters around the world. People/agencies/businesses who hire interpreters are responsible for going through a reputable agency or other provider. Clearly the hiring entity here didn’t do the research. And that entity isn’t alone. Even in this country, the two largest VRS companies hire non certified interpreters to do some of the most difficult, technical interpreting out there. You would think that these companies would know the difference and want to provide the best service! Very sad.

Member
I agree that “people/agencies/businesses” should hire interpreters from ruputable agencies. My question would be, how do they know it is reputable or not? Who informs them on what should be expected? Part of that lies with interpreters in our daily interactions with hearing and D/deaf consumers. I also want to address your comment about VRS companies hiring non-certified interpreters. Frankly, I am thrilled they hire non-certified interpreters. My experience has been one of support and mentoring. While the VRS interpreter may not be certified, they are competent and QUALIFIED to do VRS work. As previous people have commented, without some… Read more »
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[…] Brandon Arthur suggests sign language interpreters use the debacle at Mandela's memorial service to galvanize around solutions to end the problem unqualified interpreters.  […]

Member
Lisa Besant
I too am put off by the title of this article as it implies blame for interpreters but I am THRILLED that this event is drawing attention to what the Deaf community has to contend with around the world. I am stunned that this happened at this level. As I have danced around FB and many other media sites today; I am alittle amazed at the blanket statements regarding how we interpreters should “look how we too oppress and express Audism within our own practice.” ( Just one of the many interesting comments) regarding how WE interpreters should take charge… Read more »
Member
Lisa Besant

If I may clarify, my last sentence. I meant, the folks who allowed this man to do the interpretation HAD to know on some level he wasn’t qualifed.

Member

Hi Brandon! Well put. As a spoken language interpreter I’d just like to stress that this is not just a problem of the deaf community. Fake interpreters are everywhere and minority language people (signed or spoken) are often vulnerable groups who are not in a position where they can demand equal treatment or access. The good thing about this scandal is that spotlight is put on the issue. And as you say, it gives us a momentum to change. I’m in 🙂

Member

No, we “stakeholders” have not “disappointed the world”.

How dare you suggest that we are somehow accountable for this?

To be honest I detest the grotesque self-importance that this profession often has.

Member
Lindsey Antle
The comments around this issue have been fascinating. I take issue with the title of the article. As a “Deaf-made” interpreter who has worked more than 50 years, I have not disappointed the world — neither have 99.9% of my colleagues. While I admit to disappointing myself (often) and occasionally disappointing Deaf and hearing folks, that’s about the extent of it. I am fully aware of the issues of (1) where do students “practice” without doing harm, (2) why are sub-par interpreters tolerated by the communities they serve, and (3) why do interpreters (of ANY skill level) accept work for… Read more »
Member
The issue I have with raising the standards is that it is being done inconsistently. Nothing is being implemented on a scale that would raise the bar to what we need. Personally, I am not a certified interpreter. However, I hold two degrees in the field and have been working for 6+ years in the deaf community. I thinks it’s fantastic that they started requiring a bachelors, but why not require a bachelors in our actual field? The only reason I can’t get certified at the moment is lack of funds to do so. If I can’t afford the test,… Read more »
Member
Jayne Tubergen

We first have to push the Senate to ratify the CRPD before we can require adherence to it.

Member
Austin Kocher
I agree with other commenters: the title is melodramatic. But the content is in the right direction. We do need to change what counts as acceptable services. We already have an organization that is supposed to represent interpreters. While I was glad to see RID post a video on their Facebook page, the front page of the RID website looks as horrid and useless as ever. And I would imagine that people around the world are searching for information about interpreters. Kudos to Street Leverage for putting stuff on on their website, as I did the moment I found out.… Read more »
Member
Austin Kocher

Oh, yeah – and the rest of you on this thread: start writing your op-eds for your city newspapers. I’m sure they’d be glad to get ~ 300 words of local commentary on this international incident.

Member
Connie Jo Lewis
I was moved to read this article based on the title alone because I do not believe for a second that this man, this fake hand-waver, reflects back on us as interpreters in any way. I believe the opposite. I think he actually shows the world that credentialed and professional interpreters are out there, available and offer value (ex, the woman in the bubble interpreting the memorial). Anyone with any common sense takes one look at this guy and knows he wasn’t supposed to be on that stage. Secondly, I personally do not support the UN’s CRPD. I believe that… Read more »
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Connie Jo Lewis

One more thing! Can’t help but state the obvious here but no where is anyone talking about that sweet-as-sugar KODA video! “Santa was his name-o”! Let’s all sing it together! Hello! That is what people will associate with interpreters. She has MAD skills! I can’t tell you how many people have sent me that video in a private message on Facebook. NO ONE has sent me the fake hand-waver video. Not one. Even non-signing hearing folk know he is not one of us.

Member
Kelly Lallo
I really do not believe that Brandon was saying we let down the world. I believe he may be hitting upon the potential perspective the world will have. Folks who are clueless to the details, background and history of the problem. To them this could very well look like “we” are to blame. The problem here is layered in complexity from oppressed Deaf people to those tired of complaining when nothing is ever done to an imperfect testing system for interpreter certification to interpreters certified or precertified who lack the personality traits needed to be self discerning to people in… Read more »
Member
Jenny Ballew

I’d like to say that things were different for the Deaf Community here in the U.S.A., but with the two largest VRS companies both hiring NON certified interpreters to preserve shareholders profits tells a different story. How does the author feel about Purple’s recent change of heart about hiring 100% certified interpreters?

Member
Alex Chambers
Several media outlets, including the New York Daily news have done further investigation and found that this guy (Thamsanqa Jantjie) has quite the checkered past, including an arrest record that includes alleged rape, theft, but an even longer history of mental illness (which kept him out of prison for the most part. Not to mention when questioned about his qualifications, he stated that he is a “qualified interpreter”, had studied with “University of Tecturers” yet was unable to provide any documentation of his skills, or proof that this school exists. Not to mention the agency that hired him mysteriously disappeared… Read more »
Member
Renee Souleret

I agree. I have said he is similar to the man who goes around saying he is Santa Claus. His belief of that IS true. Mental illness is no joke.

Member
Beth Peterson

A deaf couple once told me that an interpreter that had come to their house to interpret for their child’s speech teacher barely knew the ASL alphabet. Come to find out the agency had found them on CRAIGSLIST!! It does happen everyday and there needs to be more education out there for hiring consumers.

dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Brandon: Thanks for the thoughtful article with the provocative title. I agree with many others that we can turn this into an opportunity to further the discussion. Part of that means our figuring out how to connect with the efforts in deaf communities to seek the ideal that Mandela spoke about when he was on trial: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it… Read more »
Member
Ginny Otsuka

I am a interpreter and I am going to take a different spin on this discussion. I don’t feel it has anything to do with the deaf or interpreters but, the stupidity of any one that would allow anyone to stand representing their government in any job with out a background check and references. Shame on them! I am appalled that our president could have been put in jeopardy by standing next to someone our government or theirs knew nothing about. Again, shame on them and us.

Member
Lewis Merkin
Excellent piece! I believe enough has been said about the impostor at Mandela’s services, so I’d like to focus my comments on your wonderful suggestions for action moving forward. All five of the suggestions are worthy, some more do-able than others. My focus will be on suggestions 2 & 3: As the sign language interpreting profession continues to evolve away from a language and culture focus into a more corporate-like, business focus, we need to find a way to preserve the ethics and integrity of our field. Attempts have been made to re-visit the Ethical Practices System within RID based… Read more »
Member
Renee Souleret
It continues because companies and agencies alike continue to hire unqualified interpreters. It continues because the more companies and agencies water down MY profession…..the likelier things like the Mandela memorial situation will happen. This was an extreme, because this man truly didn’t sign anything. And it was such a highly publicized event. But this happens on a daily basis. Out in the community. In VRS. Signers are “good enough” to put in the hot seat. I started out as a “signer” so I will be the last to judge. However when I started to learn what it meant to be… Read more »
Member
Brandon: Awesome discussion and thought provoking from commentators. Being deaf, I do want to make a comment on subpar interpreting services. It is not easy for deaf to clearly identify if the interpreter did good job or not. Often accepts the interpreting service as good when it was really not. Certified interpreters help, but we all know not all certified interpreters are good. Hopefully most of them are. When I worked for Public Utility Commission, I had excellent interpreter/assistant so I don’t suffer from subpar interpreting when I have her. A few times where I am unable to use my… Read more »
abrace
Member
Aaron Brace
Hi Brandon, Thanks for this! I’m all for provocative titles when they provoke the kind of discussion this one has. Here in the US, one way that we *have* disappointed our part of the world is in what has been described by Lynnette Taylor as the field’s shift from Deaf-centric to interpreter-centric to market-centric. We present to the hearing world a version of what our work is and how it’s assessed that is designed to suit their expectations of what a profession is. We’ve designed entry to practice in such a way that allows people with limited or even very… Read more »
Member
Hi all! am slow reading and responding to this post… I tried something: I googled: ASL nelson mandel funeral obama speech to see how many of our passionate colleagues took the time to post an interpretation of the Mandela funeral speech by Obama. I came up with one. Why aren’t our colleagues interpreting more often the content of important events and posting online/via youtube? I think it is telling that we will spend a lot of time analyzing and not as much time doing. I thought RID would post an interpretation within a few days. ( Maybe I missed it…am… Read more »
Member

Shelly,
I love your idea to put a call to interpreters to start interpreting important speeches/events and post them to YouTube!

Hearing people have continued access to these speeches and monumental events through a variety of resources and can refer back to them with a few clicks and keystrokes. The Deaf community may not have that ease of access with so few interpreted videos/closed captions. By recording an interpretation and posting it, hopefully, that extends more access. What a great idea and so do-able!

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Jennifer Saporito

A year late but, when I first heard about this, I was extremely upset. This entire incident made people more clueless to what people think of interpreters. This incident made interpreters look bad. I think we should make a legal law that interpreters must always be certified no matter what the circumstances are.

Member
Denae Puccio
I whole heartedly agree with the suggestions you made to resolve the issue of unqualified sign language interpreters infringing on the human rights of Deaf people. When the passing of Nelson Mandela occurred I was a high school senior taking sign language classes. When I saw the injustices that Thamsanqa Jantjie brought upon Deaf people during the celebration of Mandela’s life, I did a lot of research. At that moment I knew that I wanted to become an interpreter. You make very strong points about the certification of interpreters. As an interpreting student I was astonished to find out that… Read more »

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