Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Subjective Interpretation of the Story Behind the Nelson Mandela Interpreter

A Subjective Interpretation of the story behind the Nelson Mandela Interpreter

Quality control is the responsibility of both the market and the organizers of an event.  The first thing that came to mind when this dramatic story broke about Thamsanqa Jantjie, who has been accused of being a “fake” Sign Language interpreter after being tasked with interpreting in Sign Language for the most powerful man in the world on an international stage, was that someone screwed up.  However, I don’t think it was completely Jantjie, himself, despite the expressed outrage of so many. 

Jantjie was accused of simply making up his own hand motions and repeating them over and over.  That is such an outrageous claim and combined with the enormous scale of this broadcast, helped fuel the world’s attention and subsequent outrage.  There have been various stories floating around.  He was interpreting with a “Zulu dialect”.  This was originally plausible because, despite the claims of many, Sign Language does contain significant morphology and linguistic distinctions based on geography.  However, it doesn’t excuse what happened.  A claim was made that he was way too well connected for his own good and that he’s curried favorable jobs based on his connections rather than his qualifications.  This is also plausible, but again, the responsibility of the event organizers.  A story was reported that Jantjie claimed he suffered from an ill-timed schizophrenic episode.    Mental illness is nothing to scoff at.  If that is the truth, it is extremely unfortunate and there have been many armchair diagnoses one way or another, which is not a good thing.   If this was an excuse Jantjie used to deflect blame, that is shameful.  If it is true, please make sure he gets help as a result of this event, not harm. 

With all these stories in mind, there are many sayings out there that are relevant to this situation; “fake it till you make it”, “be honest on your resume, but if you’re not, don’t let it get too far”, and so forth.  This man’s mistakes lay in the failure to realize the grand scale of this setting, the importance of the person being grieved, and the importance of the people speaking.  That is 100% his fault but the world’s anger at this man is misguided.  He most likely has no idea that the quality of his product is not up to par.  He lives in an area where I suspect the local deaf market is not as empowered as it is elsewhere and does not yet know how to demand quality control.  Jantjie may very well have been operating for a long time under the assumption that the service he provided was adequate or even superior.  In response to this story and that last claim, the South Africa Translators’ Institute has pointed out problems with Jantjie’s past performance and that is an important perspective to consider. 

This last point underscores my interpretation that the people responsible for hiring this man likely did not know Sign Language themselves and fell prey to the scourge of assumption.  I am guessing that they assumed that if they found someone local, either through a very basic search or through a reference, that person would be sufficient for the job.  They may have been extremely preoccupied with the many aspects of event organization and simply checked off, “Sign Language Interpreter” on a list and moved on without putting much further thought into the issue. 

I am making a sweeping series of guesses here and I will continue to look for confirmation one way or another that these guesses are right or wrong.  Perfect storm events like this can be avoided through appropriate quality control by event organizers and there is an opportunity for the deaf community to offer quality control services to otherwise uninformed people who find themselves in the position of needing interpreters.  That’s, in my respectful opinion, the lesson to be learned by this sad happening.