16 December 2013

What the "Fake Sign Language Interpreter" Really Said

Well we can all agree on one thing, whatever it was Tamsanqua Jantije was signing during Mandela's memorial service last week, it wasn't the actual content of the word leaders' speeches he stood beside.
The backlash surrounding the event has been widespread, ranging from week-long news coverage, an SNL spoof (unfortunately no CC, no thanks to Hulu) and social commentary from philosophical darlings like Žižek.
But in all the discussion, Jantije's "performance" has brought to light several important issues about the state of sign language interpretation and our cultural understanding of language, deafness, and disability across the globe. Here's what we've learned:

1. Deaf people around the world are in need of quality interpreters and standardization of qualification processes: Questions about Jantije's qualifications, those of his employers South Africa Interpreters, and the role "dialect differences" had to play in people's ability to understand Jantije's sign remain somewhat unresolved. I'm inclined to think that the dialect excuse is just that; any fluent signer can see that Jantije was not employing facial grammar of any kind, and was making odd, repetitive gestures when the speakers were not repeating themselves (see more about this in the next point). However, Jantije, and the whole of South Africa aside, all this focus on fake interpreters has gotten people around the world talking about their struggles. Check out Language Blag's post about similar questions of standardization in Trinidad and the ongoing struggles for Deaf people in the UK and Quebec to access certified interpreting services.

2. People still don't "get" sign language: Initial news reports on the incident referred to the interpreter's "hand signals" and called sign language a manually-coded form of spoken language. We've said it before and we'll say it again: Sign languages are not the same as spoken language, nor are they in any way tied to spoken language. They are languages in their own right, with their own grammar, vocabulary, slang, etc. Saying American Sign Language is a form of English, for example, makes about as much linguistic sense as saying Spanish is a form of English (read: it doesn't). We understand that it's hard for hearing and speaking people to consider that speech and language are not synonyms for one another, but if you are the news media and are reporting on this stuff, you could at least do your research. Read more on Language Blag's dissection of biased media coverage here, or for more information on sign language grammar, check out our ASL FAQs.

3. When people don't understand something, the say discriminatory and offensive things:
Sure, the SNL spoof was funny, but along with it came thousands of less "tasteful" jokes on the nature of interpreting, sign language and deafness. When I responded to one Twitter user's joke about sign language with the question, "If the translator had been speaking gibberish Chinese or Spanish, would these jokes still be funny?" he came back with a quick "Yes, but you never will be!" (so witty!) along with a series of defensive jabs--everything from "My deaf friend thinks this joke is funny" to "You're being oversensitive" to "Humor is offensive and that's just how it is." These kinds of responses to the asking of a simple question are indicative of a culture that tolerates audism. By the way, one need only look so far as Lydia Callis's instant national fame for interpreting during Bloomberg's Sandy press conferences to see that sign language is not regarded with the same respect given to other languages--Callis was signing correct ASL, and this didn't stop the social media rampages about how sign language is so "funny looking."

Similarly, people responded to news that Jantije claimed to be having a schizophrenic episode with all sorts of hateful stereotypes about mental illness without any facts about his diagnosis or behavioral history. However, now that information does point to Jantije's history of violence, including having belonged to a group that burned men to death and having previously faced murder and kidnapping charges, (rumours of a rape charge against Jantije were also reported) we come to point number four...

4. Security Breach: How the heck did a guy with a criminal history of violence get within a foot of the President? And why did the Secret Service take so long to respond to Deaf people's concerns that Jantije was a fake?

5. After all That, it's Still All About the Hearing People:
This morning cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek wrote for The Guardian: "And this brings us to the crux of the matter: are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word? Are they not much more intended for us – it makes us (who can hear) feel good to see the interpreter, giving us a satisfaction that we are doing the right thing, taking care of the underprivileged and hindered." 
I'm sorry, what? I'm Deaf, so you might need to repeat yourself. Did you just say that sign language interpreters are not actually there to interpret for Deaf participants, but actually to somehow make hearing people feel better about themselves? I'm usually a big fan of Žižek--I teach essays of his to my undergraduates--but to this one I say, I don't think so. Being Deaf is not like being "a child with cancer" or a "flood victim." Sign language interpreters don't represent anyone "taking care" of Deaf people, anymore than a UN translator for any number of languages might. Interpreting and translation are paid services meant to facilitate communication for everybody involved. But we can't commune with society properly, not with cultural giants like Žižek perpetuating an audistic hegemony that Deaf people are broken and need to be looked after. And while I understand the point behind his conclusions, the fact that he doesn't come to undermine  his claims of deafness as "problem" by the end of his piece perpetuates the very victimization he speaks against with regards to human rights causes worldwide.
As you can see, on the communication front, we've got a lot of work to do.


  1. I have to say that at the 5th point of your article you may have misinterpreted what Žižek meant. That was meant as sarcasm, as a critic of our society. For example, in my country Slovenia, a few years ago we had interpreters on TVs during elections or election campaigns, but they were in a small square in a corner of the TV screen, almost impossible to understand what he/she is interpreting (because of the size). So you have to ask yourself, for whom is the interpreter there? Of course it is for deaf people, but it is also to get the votes from hearing viewers. Hearing people thought to themselves "oh, how nice that they take care for the poor deaf people" because they think that deaf people are like "children with cancer" as you stated. Unfortunately most hearing people don't have a clue about sign language or deaf people and that is what happened in Africa - they just wanted to get an interpreter real quick, they didn't check his credentials, because they just cared about making the whole ceremony solemn and nice to look at.
    You must not take Žižek's article literally. He criticises the society through this article on how we exploit such events for mass appeal.

    1. Hi, Roman!

      Thanks for reading Redeafined! I appreciate your point--having taught other pieces of Zizek's to my undergraduate students, I am sensitive to his general tonal register and use of sarcasm. However, whether or not the statement of interpreters being for hearing people was meant as sarcasm or not, the larger issue with the piece for us remains the same: Zizek doesn't come to undermine his discussion of deafness as a "problem" any more than the masses he seeks to critique in his article, thus furthe perpetuating the victimization he sets out to deconstruct, here, as elsewhere.

      Thanks again for visiting our site.

  2. I understand your point of view. I know that Žižek does not touch the issue of deafness and that is the problem in his article, but then again he is a philosopher and does probably not know much about deaf people and deafness in general.

    I really like your website, keep making the good articles!