As the world watched the memorial celebration for one of the greatest statesmen of our time, our attention was caught be a solemn-faced little fellow waving his arms around beside whoever was speaking. Yes, the sign-language interpreter, even to those unfamiliar with signing, didn’t seem quite kosher: no change of facial expression, slow simple movements, and the same movements constantly repeated. My initial feeling as I watched, and realised that only one lone interpreter was acting for all those who spoke, was one of pity.
I have worked as a simultaneous interpreter, and can imagine that interpreting into sign language is not much different from interpreting into a spoken language. Many people don’t realise how tiring simultaneous interpretation can be. Unlike consecutive interpretation or written translation, there is no time to think consciously of what you are saying as you listen to a speaker and repeat the message in a different language.
The brain goes into a kind of overdrive, and you can mentally make up your grocery list while speaking about automotive engineering, much in the way an expert copy typist can type a document without registering what she is writing, After half an hour to an hour of by-passing conscious thought, you need a break, which is why simultaneous interpreters usually come in teams of two. I would expect the same to apply to sign-language interpreters, whose arm, wrist and facial muscles must also ache after an intensive 30 minutes or so of work.
An interesting article in the Guardian makes the valid point that although Thamsanqa Jantjie made a fool of himself before millions, he may have done deaf people a favour by highlighting the problem of poor sign-language translation. What is more worrying, though, is the fact that with very little probing eNCA have found that this same Thamsanqa Jantjie, who is being treated for schizophrenia, has also faced rape (1994), theft (1995), housebreaking (1997), malicious damage to property (1998), murder, attempted murder and kidnapping (2003) charges. Many of the charges brought against him were dropped, allegedly because he was mentally unfit to stand trial.
How on earth he was selected for this job will probably remain a mystery, although no doubt a scapegoat will be found. My guess is that someone suddenly thought at the last minute, “Aha, we need a deaf sign language interpreter!” turned to the next down the pecking order and said, “Find one!” This person, being already overworked with delegated tasks, then despatched some minion who googled deaf sign language interpreters in Johannesburg, and picked Janjie at random. Jantjie himself was likely so flattered and overawed by the honour that he didn’t dare say he couldn’t do it.
All the same, where was Security? My neighbour who works as a dinner lady at the local school was subjected to more stringent investigation than this man appears to have undergone. Was Madiba watching all this with a huge grin on his face?
I wonder, when all is said and done, and the dust has cleared, is this débacle really just a reflection of the state of the world we live in nowadays?