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TAUBE: Sign-language gibberish signals a greater fraud

Nelson Mandela deserved better at his memorial service

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Consider this scenario. An important political figure is in poor health. The government is fortunate enough to have several months to ensure that every detail of a planned public memorial is in order.

Yet the inexplicable happens. A fraudster with a troubled past stands within earshot of various world leaders and public dignitaries. Incredulously, the best explanation a Cabinet minister can make of this national embarrassment is "a mistake happened."

This, in a nutshell, is the outlandish story of Thamsanqa Jantjie, the fake deaf translator at Nelson Mandela's memorial service.

Mr. Jantjie was accused by sign-language experts of using gibberish during his four hours on stage. None of his gestures apparently followed American Sign Language or South Africa's version, SASL.

In his defense, Mr. Jantjie claimed he was suffering from a "schizophrenic episode" and saw "angels come to the stadium" during tributes to the late South African president. More worrisome is this particular statement: "And the problem, I don't know the attack of this problem, how will it come. Sometimes I react violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things that chase me." (Mr. Jantjie reportedly has a history of violent behavior and hallucinations, and was in a mental institution for 19 months in 2006.)

One world leader who spoke at the memorial service was Barack Obama. If what Mr. Jantjie is saying is true, then be thankful — no matter what you think of this president — the sign-language fraudster wasn't violent that day.

Mr. Jantjie may be telling the truth about his mental condition. Yet in my view, it still seems to be more of an excuse — and a rather disgraceful one — of using a mental ailment, schizophrenia, to remove the stain of having insulted a group with a physical disability; namely, the deaf community.

How was Mr. Jantjie chosen? That's still a mystery.

His previous training in sign language was rudimentary. Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, South Africa's deputy minister for women, children and people with disabilities, told The Guardian's David Smith, "Does he have the training? He has only the introduction to the training. That's like a lot of South Africans." Mr. Jantjie also works for a company called SA Interpreters, who Ms. Bogopane-Zulu acknowledged has been "providing substandard services to clients. The company has been in existence for a while, but it looks like they have been cheating." Moreover, his fee was rather inexpensive by industry standards, which raises a red flag for all the wrong reasons. Mr. Smith wrote, "Whereas the standard fee for an interpreter is 1,300 to 1,700 rand a day Jantjie was being paid just 800 rand." (This works out to $77.86).

Ms. Bogopane-Zulu, who infamously uttered the phrase "a mistake happened," sloughed off much of the criticism. She said, "I don't think he was just picked up from the street. He went to a school for the deaf; I went to a school for the deaf ... . 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."

Really? I haven't heard or read about a sign-language expert, including those in South Africa, who had anything positive to say about Mr. Jantjie's performance. To call it a travesty of epic proportions is, therefore, an understatement.

The Mandela memorial service brouhaha taught us an important lesson, however. There is a fundamental need for individuals, companies and political parties to properly vet all candidates for a particular position.

I would strongly suggest South Africa start with its sign-language translators.

The Washington Post's social-media reporter, Caitlin Dewey, wrote on Dec. 11, "the new language" of SASL "is still in the process of being codified, which means there's no single, standard form — and according to the Deaf Federation of South Africa, not all language schools there use it." Meanwhile, "there were only six professional, accredited SASL interpreters in the entire country" in 2008, "a situation that University of Cape Town researcher Marion Heap ... called an 'urgent' public health risk."

That's completely unacceptable. It certainly helps explain how the African National Congress, South Africa's government since 1994, was so easily taken in by a con artist.

The ANC should support the accreditation of deaf translators who pass a rigorous standardized test, and have a solid education, strong knowledge and vast expertise. After sullying an important memorial service dedicated to their beloved "Madiba," Nelson Mandela, it's the least they can do.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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