Fake sign-language interpreter at Mandela funeral

« previous post | next post »

Kim Sengupta, "Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute", The Telegraph 12/11/2013:

The key address in the memorial service for Nelson Mandela was given by Barack Obama, whose words were brought to life for deaf spectators and TV viewers by a “sign language interpreter”, who could be seen gesturing energetically behind the sombre US President.

Yet the man, not only seen by the tens of thousands in Johannesburg’s FNB stadium where the memorial took place on Tuesday, but also by millions across the world on television, was a “fake”, according to Bruno Druchen, the national director of the Deaf Federation of  South Africa.

Mr Duchen told the Associated Press “there was no meaning in what he used his hands for”. He and other language experts pointed out that the man was not signing in South African or American sign languages and could not have been signing in any other known sign language because there was no structure to his arm and hand movements. South African sign language covers all of the country’s 11 official languages.

Apparently, the fake interpreter was not a creative gate-crasher, but rather was a fraud who makes money by getting himself hired to provide sign-language interpretation — "Interpreter For Deaf At Mandela Event Called Fake", NPR 12/11/2013:

The man also did sign interpretation at an event last year that was attended by South African President Jacob Zuma, Druchen said. At that appearance, a deaf person in the audience videotaped the event and gave it to the deaf federation, which analyzed the video, prepared a report and submitted a formal complaint to the governing African National Congress party, Druchen said. […]

Bogus sign-language interpreters are a problem in South Africa because people who know some signs — frequently because they have deaf relatives — try to pass themselves off as interpreters, Parkin said. And those contracting them usually don't know how to sign, so they have no idea the people they are hiring cannot do the job, she said.

"They advertise themselves as interpreters because they know 10 signs and they can make some quick money," Parkin said. "It is plain and simple abuse of the deaf community. They are taking advantage of the deaf community to make money."

[Update — more information on the fake interpreter, from Alan Clendenning, "Mandela Interpreter With Violent Past Says He Was Hallucinating Angels, Company Owners Have 'Vanished'", AP 12/12/2013:

The man accused of faking sign interpretation while standing alongside world leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela's memorial service said Thursday he hallucinated that angels were entering the stadium, suffers from schizophrenia and has been violent in the past.

Thamsanqa Jantjie said in a 45-minute interview with The Associated Press that his hallucinations began while he was interpreting and that he tried not to panic because there were "armed policemen around me." He added that he was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than one year.

A South African deputy Cabinet minister, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, later held a news conference to announce that "a mistake happened" in the hiring of Jantjie.


I was interested to read that the fraudster's expressionless face was seen as a clue that his gestures had no meaning:

When South African Deputy President Cyril Rampaphosa told the crowd that former South African President F.W. de Klerk was among the guests, the man at his side used a strange pushing motion unknown in sign language that did not identify de Klerk or say anything about his presence, said Ingrid Parkin, principal of the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg.

The closest the man's gestures came to anything in sign language at that point might possibly be the words for "running horse," "friend" or "beyond," she said, but only by someone who signs terribly.

The man also used virtually no facial expressions to convey the often-emotional speeches, an absolute must for sign-language interpreters, Parkin said.

Compare Lydia Callis, the last sign language interpreter to get major press coverage:

Ms. Callis was described as "the antithesis of the stoic mayor" and "much more expressive than [Mayor Bloomberg] is". But as Eric Baković noted ("It just looks so much better in sign", 10/31/2012):

[L]ooking at the videos, I don't see anything other than a (very good) ASL interpreter — in other words, Callis is not doing anything extra special here, she's just doing her job, which is to translate what people are saying into ASL. I understand that there's the contrast with the otherwise somber Bloomberg, and that what is being translated is news about Hurricane Sandy, and that for many folks this may be one of the first times they've seen sign language interpretation up close — but I can't help pointing out here that the hand movements and facial expressions are defining features of ASL (and of other signed languages). The perception that we non-signers have that these hand movements and facial expressions are particularly "animated" and "expressive" is precisely due to our lack of experience with them as linguistic features.

And as Neal Whitman points out in the comments, you can find a clear, cogent, detailed account of (some of) Ms. Callis's facial expressions and body language here: Arika Okrent, "Why do sign language interpreters look so animated?", Mental Floss 11/1/2012.


  1. Eric P Smith said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

    I know nothing about sign language (other than from one lecture as an undergraduate) and this is a genuine query.

    Why do signers make lip movements? This is very evident from the Lynda Callis clip. Have the lip movements got any meaning, or are they just a kind of background noise that superficially imitates speech? Do all signers do it, and if so, would the signing be felt to be missing something if they did not?

  2. Jason said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

    @Eric P Smith: In American Sign Language, some of the lip movements are "mouth morphemes", not associated with actual words. In other cases, the signers mouth words as an additional queue along with hand movements. I don't believe mouth morphemes are used in Australian sign language and I don't see deaf interpreters here doing it.

  3. Eric P Smith said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

    @Jason: Thank you.

  4. Neal Whitman said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

    See Arika Okrent's excellent explanation of Callis's signed expressions here.

  5. Alison said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

    @Eric P Smith: Everything @Jason has said is true. I'm a (non-native) ASL signer. What I can add is that in some instances, lip movements can disambiguate signs that are otherwise the same.

    For example, I've seen people use the same sign for "Democrat" as "dictionary": a small movement with the "D" handshape. Since they are multi-syllable words, there's enough information in the lip movement that it makes the meaning absolutely clear.

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

    In the course of reading about this, I ran across, via this lengthy discussion at Metafilter, the Coda Brothers, who are speaking children of deaf parents (CODA = Children of Deaf Adults), professional ASL interpreters who have a popular Youtube channel about deaf culture and "CODA culture." They have a number of videos about various aspects of deaf life, where they sign and then later dub in their own English translation. But in this video in particular—assuming I understand what's going on—they narrate their ASL discussion by simultaneously verbally translating it, sign by sign. The result is something like English with ASL syntax, or at least order. There's also a thing going on with vocal expression ("CODA voice") that I don't understand, but it's clear that contact between oral and sign language is a richer thing than I had realized.

  7. katie said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:02 am

    Re: lip movements, it could also be for people who are low-hearing but still hear some who like to read lips. Often getting input in two ways can improve hearing it. (I have no known hearing issues, but I hate telephones — I prefer to read lips while people talk. Also, I turn on closed captioning on my TV. I wonder if I have some sort of auditory input malfunction. :D)

  8. David said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:26 am

    In ASL, there are certain signs that have specific mouth movements attached, such as the signs for "who?" "what?" "where?" "when?" and "why?" Other times, as Jason suggests, they serve other functions. For example, certain ranges of mouth movements can be used to mark intensity of different sorts of things. For example, the English "very thin" would be translated to a combination of a pinched-finger "thin" with a lips-around-straw "very thin", while a pointing-up-and-out "far away" could be intensified with a wide open mouth, or moderated with a "medium" frown. Tongue movements can be meaningful too–I've seen the tongue wagging quickly back and forth used as an extreme intensifier. Other facial expressions (eyelids opening or narrowing, eyebrows going up and down, etc.) can be used similarly. These things are all language-specific–different signed languages will have different sets of conventional facial expressions alongside freeform/natural ones, and may use mouth movements for different linguistic functions.

  9. michael farris said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:39 am

    On lip movements. The short story is there are different kinds of lip movements in most sign languages.

    Sometimes they're associated with a spoken word and sometimes they're something completely different.

    Even when they're associated with a spoken word it's not necessarily what's being signed. The claim has been made that in German Sign Language the mouth pattern associated the word 'auf' (roughly 'on', 'to') can co-occur with other signs like pronouns and indicates something like accusative.

    In Polish Sign Language the sign HARD-OF-HEARING is very often accompanied by the mouth pattern for pół (half).

    There are also different kinds of grammar markers that involve lip movement like the ASL adverbials that mean something like 'pleasantly/working as it should' or 'carelessly'.

    Finally, as a non-native signer who loves sign languages, I'll mention that just as human voices have different levels of aesthetic appeal, what might be called 'sign voices' are also very different.

    Ms Callis has a very pleasing sign voice and I think that's what people (even those who don't know ASL) were responding to.
    One of my favorite sign voices is this guy who does interpretation for TeleSUR: I don't know Venezuelan Sign Language but I think his sign voice is very appealing.


  10. AntC said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 2:32 am

    In New Zealand, we had a similar experience to New Yorkers, following the Christchurch earthquakes, with NZ Sign Languge (our third official language) interpreters for all announcements and press conferences.
    (Apologies that I can't find a video of Jeremy in action.)

  11. Yuval said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 5:30 am

    Isn't the sentence "South African sign language covers all of the country’s 11 official languages" fundamentally wrong? SL's don't correspond to spoken languages, so there must be a better way to convey what the author means here. No?

  12. Sean Case said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 5:53 am

    The plot thickens. According to the Grauniad, the interpreter is claiming that he had some kind of mental health event on stage.

  13. Andrew said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    Nitpick on the headline – this was not Mandela's funeral, but, as the body of the article says, a memorial.

  14. Jespersen said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 9:25 am

    BREAKING NEWS: Birth of a new language recorded live

    Linguists worldwide celebrate the spontaneous emergence of a new language, Jantjiese, officially classified as the first member of the Thamsanqan language family. Although emergence of novel sign languages is not a unique phenomenon – well-publicized cases include the Nicaraguan Sign Language and the Al-Sayyid Bedouin sign language – this may be the world's first ever case of a birth of a language captured on live footage.

    Even more surprising is the fact that the first corpus of Jantjiese – currently annotated by the Stanford NLP group – is a parallel one, consisting of translations between Jantjiese and a number of other languages, including English.

    "The situation is truly unprecedented," says linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker. "The grammar of the new language is very primitive, of course, and the signs are iconic, but it provides a very potent tool for communication, and the messages are complex enough to be translatable into other languages, as we have seen."

    But other linguists, such as David Perlmutter, question the idea that the new language emerged spontaneously, drawing attention to what they consider borrowed signs in Jantjiese – including phrases such as "rocking horses" and "prawns".

    Asked about the event, linguist Noam Chomsky replied: "Obviously […] the emergence of this […] new language, it shows that […] the capacity for grammar is innate, [and also] proves the idea that language is first and foremost […] a tool for organising thought."

  15. blahedo said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 9:45 am

    @Yuval: I took that to be shorthand for something like, "South African sign language is a single sign language that is in use across all of South Africa, including areas inhabited by speakers of all eleven spoken official languages." In an article targeted at a general audience (and especially as written by a non-linguist journalist), it struck me as a relatively inoffensive simplification.

  16. Breffni said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 11:17 am

    blahedo: I think that's a generous interpretation. If the journalist had meant that, the plainest way to express it would be something like 'South African Sign Language is the language used by the Deaf throughout South Africa'. Whether or not Sengupta himself grasps that this is a language like any other, what he actually wrote is fully compatible with the notion, which is already out there, that sign languages somehow piggy-back on spoken languages.

  17. Steve HK said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    I noticed that the first version of the story on CNN used scare quotes (Interpreter at Mandela memorial "a fake", group says). They have, thankfully, since removed the scare quotes. But it is interesting that they would be so slow to trust SASL speakers' judgment.

  18. G said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    Some news outlets, notably the BBC, have a habit of surrounding almost every claim or piece of information in their headlines with quotes, no matter how uncontroversial the statement. It would not surprise me in the least if they initially reported Mandela's death with a headline like "Nelson Mandela 'has died'"; they've done it many times before. I've seen them called "fear quotes": unlike scare quotes, they don't indicate skepticism, just unwillingness to commit to any position whatsoever.

  19. Jjk said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

    @Breffni: in several accounts I read, there were suggestions that the reason some couldn't understand the interpreter was that he was using a variant they weren't familiar with — that is, that there was a Xhosa sign language and so on. I think the phrase Yuvai objects to was intended to rebut that argument.

  20. Ted said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

    Very interesting discussion at Limping Chicken, a UK website.

  21. Avinor said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

    While there can be no doubt that the grammars of sign languages are quite different from those of spoken languages, there still seems to exist a degree of symbiosis. Countries with several official (spoken) languages tend to have one corresponding sign language for each of them. For example, there are separate Finland Swedish, Swiss French, Swiss German, Flemish, French Belgian, and French Canadian sign languages. Thus, I wouldn't have been surprised if there actually existed separate sign languages corresponding to, say, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, or Afrikaans.

    While sharing an office with a deaf colleague, I had the chance to learn a little Swedish Sign Language. It struck me how often signs had an obvious connection with Swedish. For example, some signs for abstract nouns being the fingerspelling of the first letter of the Swedish word, combined with a specific place and mode of articulation.

  22. Eric said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 1:44 am

    Boy, Jantjie and the ANC Deputy Minister are really doubling down on this one (via the story in Sean Case's comment)

    "Anyone who doesn't understand this illness will think that I'm just making this up."

    experts saying he did not know even basic signs such as "thank you" or "Mandela".

    Jantjie … was happy with his performance… "What I've been doing, I think I've been a champion of sign language. I've interpreted in many big events."

    Jantjie's first language is Xhosa… "He was not able to translate from English to Xhosa to sign language. He started well and then in the middle he got tired and lost concentration. That did not mean he is a bad sign language interpreter."

    Bogopane-Zulu argued that South African sign language had more than 100 dialects, making it impossible to be understood by everyone.

    [Never mind that there’s a standardized register used on SABC nightly.]

    "The issue of sign language has always been about where you live, what school you go to and what language you speak… There is a battle between black and white sign language people. Urban and rural. Whose slang takes priority?"

    A comment on the Limping Chicken thread Ted posted above has an interesting synopsis of the histories of signed varieties in SA.

    "We will find someone who understands him… but we're not going to do it now."

    She also said South Africa was well ahead of many other countries in providing sign language services for presidential speeches.

    "Why should he be brought to justice? Yes, he did not sign as well as expected, but what crime has he committed?"

    On Thursday the South African government admitted Jantjie lacked qualifications and the company who supplied him had a history of "cheating", contradicting Jantjie, who has said he has a formal qualification.

    But the government denied he was a fraud and refused to rule out employing him again.

    One question I haven't seen asked is, if Jantjie's troubles on Tuesday stem from a schizophrenic episode, what's his excuse for signing shite two years ago when "interpreting" "Shoot the Boer?" It's so painfully obvious in the video on YouTube those are made-up hearie gestures.

    The reciprocal ass-covering going on in the ANC government is ridiculous and sad. On the very lengthy Metafilter thread linked above, a few commenters praised his "brass balls". I, for one, also initially had to admire his chutzpah on some level but in fact the move seems a lot less ballsy when you consider that those with political connections convicted of crimes arguably much worse than lying about language fluency are often let off with a slap on the wrist.

    There's a symbiosis whenever two languages are widely used in conjunction, not just influence of spoken upon signed.

  23. Stan Carey said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 6:48 am

    @ Steve HK, G:

    See Language Log (2009) on this headline quotation style, and in the comments Martyn Cornell's coinage claim quotes. He says they're used as a "distancing device, like scare quotes, but unlike scare quotes they're not meant to carry any value judgment, quite the opposite"; that it's a way of saying "someone is making this claim and we neither give it authority nor dismiss it, we’re just reporting it" — often as paraphrase.

    Aside: on my own blog Sentence first I proposed a subset of scare quotes called scary quotes where the quoted material is, well, scary. This came about after a visit to the BBC news website where consecutive headlines announced Underwear 'bomber', China's 'memory holes', and 'Vomiting and screaming'; and later that day 'rape', 'recession', and 'rhino gang'.

  24. Marek said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    Isn't the entire "schizophrenic episode" explanation ridiculous and offensive simply because of the fact he's offering it to hearie interviewers, as opposed the actual offended group (the South African Deaf) in the language he claims to know (SASL)?

    If I went on stage as an Arabic translator, repeated "derka derka" for an hour instead, and then tried brushing it off as temporary mental impairment, I think giving credibility to that claim would be as easy as making the apology in question in actual Arabic.

    >It's so painfully obvious in the video on YouTube those are made-up hearie gestures.

    My favourite part is that he keeps changing the way he represents "run" in every verse. Plus, I don't think leg movement serves as a distinctive feature in any sign language (but I may be wrong here).

  25. Eneri Rose said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 9:35 am

    Does a person "listening" to the signer look at the face for those suble clues and see the manual signs, which are larger, in the peripheral vision? Or the reverse?

  26. Stan Carey said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    South African news channel eNCA is now reporting that he faced charges of murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping in 2003, and many other serious crimes over the years. But "the court file is mysteriously empty".

  27. michael farris said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 11:59 am

    "Does a person "listening" to the signer look at the face for those suble clues and see the manual signs, which are larger, in the peripheral vision? Or the reverse?"

    Fluent signers, as recipients, lock their sight on the face of the signer and see everything else in peripheral vision.

    Beginning learners have a habit of letting their eyes dart around which means they miss a lot of information. Keeping the eyes still (and on the face of the signer) takes a while to learn but it's far more efficient in the long run.

  28. Ted said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    Meanwhile, the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre has debunked the schizophrenia claim. (More precisely, they debunked the argument that Jantjie's poor performance could be the result of a schizophrenic episode if he were otherwise a competent signer.)

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

    Yes, further to Ted's point I saw a plausible contention elsewhere that, among non-sign-users, schizophrenic episodes can sometimes result in "word salad" which is confusing/nonsensical but does consist of incorrectly-assembled (but individually intelligible) words from the sufferer's native language rather than nonsense syllables, with the notion that a parallel "sign salad" would not be implausible but that that's not what happened here.

  30. Bobbie said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

    This little girl did a lot better with signing for holiday songs. She is a hearing child of deaf parents and is five years old. Proper spelling, gestures and facial expressions!

  31. Eric said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    That Buzzfeed clip has been going around, on other outlets as well, and yet I can't help but think that it's rooted in some patronizing views toward deafness. Would a video ADORABLE: Little girl translates play to Spanish for her Dominican parents have nearly the same viral qualities?

  32. Eric said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    > If I went on stage as an Arabic translator, repeated "derka derka" for an hour instead
    I would definitely pay to see that

    > I think giving credibility to that claim would be as easy as making the apology in question in actual Arabic.
    Excellent point.

    > My favourite part is that he keeps changing the way he represents "run" in every verse.
    I noticed that, too. Gold.

    I really wonder now if at root is, in fact, ignorant attitudes about signed languages as actual languages with grammatical features, that can express abstract thought, that aren't just gestures, etc. I think it may well be less a case of, "I'm going to pass myself off as someone who knows this highly skilled field and A) no one will find out, at least no one with any power or B) if they do find out, nothing will happen to me because of rampant incompentence" and something more like, "Pssh… you just have to get up there and mime whatever the guy's saying… How hard can it be?"

  33. Eric said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 3:45 pm

    Also, remember, no one is claiming he knows SASL per se, merely that he knows a signed language (¿lenguaje?), that someone could be found to understand… "but we're not going to find them now."

    @Stan Carey
    Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, how "mysterious!"

    Well, it looks like he was asked arguably "on behalf of the Deaf community," and declined.
    I believe the best option would be to film him with a stream of Deaf South African interviewers, and watch the deer-in-the-headlights hilarity ensue.

    Addendum: I'd also like to see a Xhosa reporter tear him a new one.

  34. Marek said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

    Ah, thanks for the update.

    I absolutely agree with your comment about patronising attitudes, but I also think the whole fiasco ended up accidentally teaching some people a thing or two about sign language(s) due to the attention. At the very least, it was entertaining for me to watch an ignorant douche hosting a Polish breakfast show get his mind blown by an interpreter who told him that, yes, there's more than one sign language… and then responded to all his further questions about the difficulty of learning and translating sign language by firing them right back but replacing "sign language" with "Spanish" (she handled that pretty damn well).

    And the backstory of our adventurous faux-interpreter just keeps getting more and more interesting:

  35. Alex said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

    @Eric: My god, if people think that signing is a skill you can fake after learning a few words, then sign languages *are* just like all other languages! I remember my mom when I was young started trying to get freelance written translation work (Spanish to English), and how many employers were stunned that she charged so much to translate. They thought she'd just read the English text and type the Spanish simultaneously, maybe 5 minutes a page, tops!

    Now she teaches high school, and she gets a few parents each year who come in with their 8th graders and ask, "What can my little Janey possibly learn in Spanish this year? She already took 3 years in middle school and we spent a week in Cancun – she's totally fluent!"

RSS feed for comments on this post