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The fake SASL interpreter – a curse or a gift?

By Alison Swannack

Alison SwannackAt Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on 10 December 2013, sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie caused worldwide consternation when it became clear that about 70 million Deaf people worldwide could not understand him, much less the South African Deaf community.

He was accused of being a ‘fake’ and there was extensive inquiry into his credentials as well as the professional standards of sign language interpreting in South Africa.

How can one distinguish a real interpreter from a ‘fake’ interpreter? How can we distinguish sign languages from gestures?
In South Africa there are many untrained and unqualified interpreters who deprive Deaf people of proper services every day. Was this an example of that? Were the accusations against Jantjie fairly attributed to his alleged mental illness and criminal record? Did he know about sign language at all or was he just baffled with gestures?
Was he perhaps just using a Zulu or Xhosa version of SASL, one of 100 SASL dialects, as 84 was claimed by public officials?

(Smith: 2013) Is there indeed no universal standard for sign language in South Africa, and an ongoing battle between black and white sign language, urban and rural dialects?

This presentation will examine the issues raised by the ‘fake’ interpreter’s performance at Mandela’s memorial services and compare with two previous interpreting efforts at the official funeral service for Mama Albertina Sisulu and an ANC rally in Bloemfontein.

I will explain the basic concepts of sign language by analysing and comparing how the fake interpreter differs from a real SASL interpreter, exploring the phonological, morphological and syntactical processes which Jantjie failed to produce, including blank expressions, very few handshapes, insufficient placement and no fingerspelling / indexing who the speaker refers to, as well as the lack of knowledge of basic signs I will also attempt to clarify why it was possible for many people to identify the interpreter as fake if they themselves do not know a signed language.