How could you tell it was fake?
What was he really signing?
Do deaf people in South Africa know American Sign Language?
What did the deaf people do?

Knowing that I am an American Sign Language interpreter, these are some of the questions my friends and family asked as the world watched the interpreter debacle at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service unfold. As soon as I heard about it from a coworker, my first move was to pull up the video on YouTube. I thought it would be difficult to find, but little did I know that thousands of people had beat me to the punch and there were countless clips on the website to choose from. I watched. My eyebrows scrunched as I tried to make sense of it. My jaw dropped. I even let out a little chuckle, though it wasn’t out of humor, but out of disbelief. To any trained sign language interpreter it was clear the man on stage waving his hands in the air was really just… well… waving his hands in the air. It was gibberish. It was the sign language equivalent of Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” but with heads of state within arm’s length and all the pomp and circumstance befitting of a presidential event. It was just sad.

American Sign Language is the predominant form of sign language used in the United States. While there are different kinds of sign language around the world: British Sign Language, Japanese Sign Language, and Israeli Sign Language, to name just a few, many countries have been heavily influenced by American Sign Language (South Africa being one of them) and therefore it is common to see similarities in manual languages from other countries. I pulled up the YouTube video confident that I would be able to pick out the interpreter’s message but was left trying to bend my head around hand-gestural soup.

It took but just a moment for the deaf and sign language interpreting communities to get hold of this international fiasco and use it as a reminder that the battle for equal communication access is still being fought, even and maybe ESPECIALLY when an ill-equipped, untrained interpreter is facilitating the communication. More damage can often times be done by a signer who is trying to “do good” than having no interpreter at all. There are grammatical subtleties and nuances than can change the entire intent of the message. As an example, consider the good news from your doctor who called to tell you that that your test results were negative. That same sentence can be instantly misinterpreted by a well-meaning signer into a one that says the news about your test was negative. A tiny difference in the sentence structure, but a monumental difference in the message.

So when is a sign not a sign? If you aren’t fluent in sign language, you may never know. The good news, though, is that we know. In fact, Indianapolis Interpreters has gone to great lengths to make sure that we understand the interpreting needs of the deaf and hard of hearing communities and the communication needs of our clients. So when you see our interpreters’ hands waving in the air, you can be assured that it’s not the “Jabberwocky” they are signing, unless, of course, that’s what YOU are talking about and then we might have to send in some reinforcements.