mandela-interpreterLike Frank Abanagle in the movie Catch Me If You Can, we’re used to the occasional story of a layperson who pretends to be a doctor or a pilot, but what about a sign language interpreter? The Telegraph (12/11/2013) reported that at Nelson Mandela’s recent memorial service in Johannesburg, things were not what they seemed to be. The man standing behind Barak Obama and making gestures was not a sign language interpreter, but a fraud. 

Thamsanqa Jantjie was not signing in South African sign language or any other known sign languages. Bruno Druchen, the national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa said to the Associated Press, “there was no meaning in what he used his hands for”. It was further revealed that Jantjie has a history of passing himself off as a fake sign language interpreter. He had “interpreted” at an event held last year with the South African President Jacob Zuma in attendance. A bemused audience member recorded his performance and submitted it to the Deaf Federation. The organization analyzed the tape and lodged a complaint with the government. This didn’t stop Jantjie from performing at Mandela’s memorial. 

Incredibly, he’s not the only one to pull such a rort. Apparently, fake sign language interpretation is a common scam in South Africa. These frauds tend to learn a few signs, perhaps because they have a person who is hearing-impaired in their family. Then they pass themselves off as “experts”, taking advantage of people in the deaf community. The people hiring these “interpreters” simply don’t know sign language and don’t test them. 

Sign language interpretation is a tough job as the signers must translate and interpret simultaneously. In watching the video, Jantjie’s signing is not typical of sign interpretation. Sign language is a highly visual language and the facial expressions of interpreters are usually highly animated. (Compare the performance given by Lydia Callis during New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s following Hurricane Sandy.) Interpreters usually use lip movements too, to supplement the sign language. In contrast, Jantjie’s face remains expressionless. 

Jantjie simply wasn’t saying anything comprehensible. His gestures came closest to the signs for “running horse”, “friend” or “beyond”, but in no way did they resemble the three hours of speeches. Body movements are also a part of the grammar of the various sign languages of the world. However, Jantjie wasn’t using sign language because there was no structure to his movements. It was gibberish. In this way, his acting is the sign language equivalent of speaking in tongues. Even laypeople have commented that it doesn’t look like Jantjie was using sign language. It looks like he’s voguing. 

Since the event, Jantjie has argued that he had studied sign language interpretation at a school in Cape Town and has performed many other jobs, without any complaints. He also admitted that he suffers from schizophrenia and has been violent in the past. Jantjie claims that he has no recollection of his performance, but he has also said that during the event he hallucinated that angels were entering the stadium. 


NPR. 12/11/2013. “Interpreter For Deaf At Mandela Event Called Fake”.

Okrent, Arika. Why do sign language interpreters look so animated?

Sengupta, Kim. The Telegraph 12/11/2013. Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute”. 

TPM News. “Mandela Interpreter With Violent Past Says He Was Hallucinating Angels, Company Owners Have ‘Vanished’”.