Lost in interpretation

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Barbie Parker is a rock star sign language interpreter. When a guitarist starts a riff, Parker plays air guitar. When the drummer starts pounding, she claps to the beat. Her body moves to the rhythm of the songs as she signs lyrics with the same attitude as the musicians, from Bob Dylan to Lady Gaga.

When Parker’s audience — those who are deaf and hard of hearing — see her interpretations for the first time, they often say “Now I understand why people like music.” As an interpreter, Parker gives the deaf community an opportunity to appreciate an experience that for so long was only accessible to those who could hear.

Quality interpreting enables a deaf audience to experience and participate in public events usually only accessible for hearing individuals. But poor interpreting can alienate viewers, and create even bigger gaps in communication.


Sign language interpreter Barbie Parker performs Breaks€ by the Black Keys at Lalapalooza in 2010. Interpretations by Parker and her team at LotuSIGN give the deaf community access to music in a completely new way. “Some of the things that we hear from people who haven’t seen our type of interpretation are, ‘Wow, you made metal music look like metal,’ or ‘I didn’€™t understand music until I saw this.'” Video by YouTube user bubbakja

When deaf viewers watched Nelson Mandela’s memorial last week and realized the sign language interpreter was making gestures that were little more than gibberish, they were outraged. Word of the botched event spread throughout the deaf community over social media networks. Thamsanqa Jantjie, the infamous “fake interpreter” had stolen a moment in history from those who could not hear.

“The fact that there is someone willing to pose as an interpreter is horrendous,” Melanie Metzger, an interpreter practitioner, said in a phone interview with PBS NewsHour. “The international deaf community is losing out the opportunity to participate in this historic event.”

In a joint statement released Thursday, the World Federation of the Deaf and the World Association for Sign Language Interpreters did not sugar-coat. They said that Jantjie “did not know (South African Sign Language) or any sign language at all.”

The task of interpreting the numerous speakers at Mandela’s memorial service would have been a challenge for even the most skilled sign language interpreter.

Sign languages vary from country to country, with more than 200 used worldwide. While most use the hands, face and space around the body for grammatical purposes, the vocabulary, grammar and syntax will depend upon how deaf people in a specific region have historically communicated. The historical roots for spoken languages are not necessarily the same for a country’s sign language. For example, Metzger said that American Sign Language has more in common with French Sign Language than with British Sign Language, even though British and American English, when spoken, are more or less the same.

But the ability to sign is only one of the many skills needed to be considered a competent interpreter. Metzger, a professor and chair of the interpretation department at Gallaudet University, said the challenge of interpretation lies in learning how the mind takes in one language, reformulates it, and simultaneously expresses the meaning into another language. Within seconds, a qualified interpreter conveys both what is said and how a speaker says it.

“It is very cognitively tasking,” Metzger said.

A sign language interpreter must be aware of how his or her surroundings can affect their interpretation. The space around their body can be critical to express the meaning of a  speech. Sign language interpreters even have to be careful about how they dress. Metzger said that interpreters  should wear solid-color clothing that contrasts with their skin color, so that their hands can be easily seen.

And the style of interpretation can radically change based on the event and audience. Parker signed in a completely different manner for President Obama’s inaugural address at the National Mall in Washington compared to how she performed at a Jack White concert at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago.

“The dress is different, the affect, the way we will sign is different,” Parker said as she described how she and her team at LotuSIGN approach public ceremonies, such as the 57th Inauguration in January. “It may seem more animated, but it will also be more reserved because of the nature of the event … We stand tall. The gestures are larger, more crisp, almost more majestic and impactful.”

Before an interpretation, Parker will prepare as much as possible, by reviewing any texts provided, watching YouTube videos of the speaker to study their rhetoric and style of delivery and to understand their perspective on issues. Being a good sign language interpreter heavily depends on being equally literate in a spoken language as a sign language. And not any interpreter can provide services for every signer. Parker, for instance, specializes in interpreting American English into American Sign Language.

The job of an interpreter is to be a cultural mediator, to preserve the spirit and content of the hearing speaker’s words.“It is never about the interpreter,” Parker said, “it is always about the speaker and the client.”


Watch Independent Television News report on Jantjie to see some of the signs he made during speeches by South African President Jacob Zuma and U.S. President Barack Obama. Video by ITN

Unlike Parker, who has been praised for the effectiveness of her interpretations, Jantjie has stood out for his inability to communicate to deaf audiences. The Deaf Federation of South Africa had already filed complaints with the governing African National Congress Party about Jantjie’s incorrect interpretations at other events, including ones where President Jacob Zuma had spoken, The Associated Press reported. Bruno Druchen, the federation’s national director, said that the ANC never responded to their formal complaint, which recommended that Jantjie complete a five-year course in interpretation.

Parker was adamant that interpreters should only take on jobs that they know they can interpret with proper knowledge of the content and the event and can maintain complete neutrality. “Certification can document competence,” Parker said, “but the most important thing for interpretation is commitment to the deaf culture and to only interpret where you think you are qualified.”

When the affect, the gestures or the style of movement don’t match that of a speaker, deaf people can tell. Larry Gray, who is deaf and an assistant professor of American Sign Language & Interpretation at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Md., explained that humor, or lack thereof, is often an early sign that a deaf community is lost in interpretation. He wrote in an email to PBS NewsHour, “Oftentimes, if Deaf people notice that hearing people in the audience are laughing because the speaker makes a joke or says something funny, and we’re not laughing, then we know that something is wrong.”

While neither Parker, Metzger or Gray have first-hand knowledge of the situation involving Jantjie, the event brought up serious issues that many deaf communities face in the U.S. and around the world. For Parker, the lack of equal access to knowledge for deaf people is still a consistent problem and cause for concern. “People who don’t have a voice are oppressed by people in power.”

Gray did not want to minimize the oppressive experiences of deaf people, but similar to almost all professions, there are interpreters, he noted, who become complacent or do not proactively try to improve their interpreting skills. Then, there are those who he says are “grossly incompetent.”

“In the case of the Mandela’s memorial service, because the imposter accepted an assignment he was not qualified nor competent to fulfill,” Gray wrote, “in this extreme situation, I would classify (this as) oppression.”

Parker said that the unfortunate circumstances that led to the misinterpretation at the Mandela memorial could have been easily avoided if members of the deaf community had been included in the vetting process for an interpreter.

“Deaf people should have been involved especially for events of this magnitude,” Gray wrote, in agreement with Parker. “In addition, there are additional resources such as Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and World Federation of the Deaf.”

I believe that education and collaboration are necessary. For example, those who hire interpreters,  but do not know or understand the process and impact, would generally say, ‘Do you know sign language?’ and hire upon confirmation. It is more than knowing sign language.”

The South African government has yet to say who was responsible for hiring Jantjie, but Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile formally apologized to the deaf community on Friday for any offense suffered as a result of Jantjie’s flawed interpretations.