For those of us who can’t read the language of the hearing impaired, we, perhaps, thought that the man who was standing beside the speakers and providing sign language interpretation during the Nelson Mandela memorial service at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, which was attended by a number of head of states and other dignitaries, was the right person for the occasion.
Little did we know that Thamsanqa Jantjie, the hired interpreter, was making gestures that is said to have baffled and angered deaf people around the world, with experts saying he did not know even basic signs such as “thank you” or “Mandela” or “South Africa.”
Critics say Jantjie just seemed to make up random gestures that bore no relationship to sign language interpreting for deaf people.
The following are some comments of those familiar with sign language:
“It was like getting somebody off the street and telling them to flap their hands around,” Cara Loening, director of Cape Town-based Sign Language Education and Development, told the South African Press Assn.
“There was zero percent accuracy,” said Delphin Hlungwane, of DeafSA, an organization representing the deaf. “He couldn’t even get the basics right. He couldn’t even say thank you,” she told Reuters. “He just invented his signs as he went along.”
Nicole Du Toit, an official sign language interpreter who also watched the broadcast, said in a telephone interview that the man on stage purporting to sign was an embarrassment.
“It was horrible, an absolute circus, really, really bad,” she said. “Only he can understand those gestures.”
Now South Africa’s leading deaf association denounced Jantjie as a fake, saying he was inventing signs, and described the episode as an insult to deaf people and Mandela himself.
Well, is Jantjie really fake or is he just sick in the head?
Jantjie seems to have taken offense at being called fake, defending his reputation, saying, “If I interpreted wrong, why is it an issue now? Why wasn’t it an issue when I was doing interpretation at MaSisulu’s funeral and many big events in South Africa?”
Somehow, Jantjie has to come out in the open and exposed what really happened to him that day at the service.
Jantjie claims that having received training in sign language he was qualified, but, unfortunately, he was hallucinating and hearing voices during the service.
Apparently, Jantjie suffers from schizophrenia and he had an episode during the service, possibly brought on by the magnitude of the occasion. He says he felt unable to leave and continued to sign things that made no sense.
“There was nothing I could do,” Jantjie said in an interview. “I was alone in a very dangerous situation. I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry. It’s the situation I found myself in.”
Jantjie said his episode meant he was seeing things and hearing loud voices in his head, impairing his ability to hear and interpret the speeches. But he could not leave so he persevered. “Life is unfair. This illness is unfair. Anyone who doesn’t understand this illness will think that I’m just making this up.”
As Jantjie continues to receive medication for his schizophrenia, people will just have to understand this serious mental illness that is wrecking havoc in his mind and hope that the world forgives him for the unexpected faux pas.