One Professor Graham Turner summarizes the lessons perfectly here and I would love for my Kenyan audience to read and learn some lessons that would help our own situations. I have added my own observations in italics for contextualization.
As the world said goodbye to former South African president Nelson Mandela at the Dec. 9 memorial service, attention turned to the sign language interpreter, who was incoherently signing at the event. Immediately there was uproar from the South African Deaf and Interpreter community. Quickly the #FakeInterpreter was all over the internet with many making jokes about it, others criticizing, admonishing while other bowed in shame due to the embarrassment the episode stirred across the globe.
It’s pretty clear that we haven’t seen the last of this story. But what is its real significance? Here are ten lessons for the world from The Tale of the Fake Interpreter.
- Using a sign language fluently is not something one can do just by waving one’s hands around. Sign languages are grammatically-structured, rule-governed systems like all other natural human languages. You can’t produce meaningful signing off the cuff and – equally importantly – you can’t understand it spontaneously just by looking. To get the message across the signer has to be appropriately dress especially if they are on camera, the lighting, background and colors matter a lot to the recipients. The facial expressions, the body movements, hand formations (handforms, handshapes) do carry meaning too.
- If you can’t sign, but require interpreting, you need reliable processes to help you identify effective provision. Interpreting isn’t a game: it should be run on a professional basis. This time, we saw a spectacular insult to the world’s Deaf people: but no-one died. Worldwide, every day, the result of inadequate interpreting leads to poor schooling, imprisonment, unemployment and health disparities; inaccurate information. This has led to stereotyping in Kenya, recently I was shocked when a senior politician in reference to the Deaf said "...what will they bring to our party? they take long to express themselves.." The same can be said about the Kenyan schooling system that labels the Deaf as slow learners, under achievers thus relegating the Deaf to vocational training rather than empowering them to be the best that they can be.This must stop.
- Without proper training, screening and regulation, people can and will take advantage. Even in countries like the UK, where sign language interpreting has become increasingly professionalised since the 1980s, smooth operators (who can talk the talk but not sign the sign) are legion. If you can’t sign, they may appear wholly plausible and be wholly bogus. Don’t guess and you won’t be fooled. So far we in Kenya are lagging behind, we have several Sign Language trainers though it is done in a non professional coordinated way - this is despite the schooling system having Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) as a school subject and examined topic there exists a KSL curriculum, KSL exam for both primary school and O' level - these are good developments but there needs to be more efforts towards standardization of how KSL is taught and examined, a proper training system for interpreters - currently there is no proper training program for interpreters. Second to this there needs to be a screening and regulatory body for the interpreters. This development will bring about the desired professionalism so much required in this field.
- This episode is just the high-visibility version of the con-men who pretend to be poor Deaf people in order to extort money by begging on the streets.It’s an age-old phenomenon in a new guise, taking advantage of public authorities’ need to present a politically correct face. They think they’ll get away with it because no-one who can do anything about it will notice or complain. The worst is as they say in Swahili "Asiye funzwa na mamake hufunzwa na ulimwengu" - He who is not schooled by the mother will be schooled by the world - negative publicity not good for anyone's career.
- They’re right: hearing people can’t tell they’re lying, and Deaf people’s complaints – about this and anything else – are too often ignored. This, too, must end. Here in Kenya we had Deaf people complain about the parliamentary proceedings interpreter. It took a while, several letters, face-to-face meetings and a collaborative effort between the KNAD, Interpreters, National broadcaster and parliament officials to resolve the issue. Today we have at least four fluent signers on the screen. As you read this there are murmurs and complaints about the KTN News interpretation.
Hang on, though: that’s only five lessons?!
Here are five more: but beware – these are conclusions some will find easy to reach, but which should be resisted.
- ‘Always trust Deaf people to tell you who is a good interpreter.’ Not so fast. Deaf people know fluent signing when they see it and they know who they respect and trust – and these are vital. But when it comes to recognising that someone is appropriately representing meaning, you have to be able to access both languages. You can’t tell whether output matches input unless both are available to you.
- ‘There’s too much to lose in booking the wrong interpreter, so let’s stop using them.’ For all the risks – and they’re very real – the life prospects of Deaf people have plainly been enhanced via good interpreting services. The Deaf Finnish leader, Liisa Kauppinen, received the 2013 United Nations Human Rights Award Prize on the day of Mandela’s memorial service: her achievements would have been impossible without top-notch interpreting. But crucially, quality counts – cosmetic interpreting that’s just for show is destructive.
- ‘Sign language interpreters cannot be trusted’. Untrue: but not everyone who claims to be an interpreter should be taken seriously. What matters is having robust and reliable ways of distinguishing the real diamonds from the plastic forgeries.
- ‘After this outcry, public awareness and recognition of sign languages is assured.’ Hang on! Don’t start getting complacent just yet. The sudden global focus presents a real opportunity to push home the demand for change, and to raise standards everywhere: but it won’t happen by itself. Here in Scotland, a British Sign Language Bill is due to go to Parliament in 2014 – all Scots who value signing should put their shoulders to the wheel and keep on pushing. The same is true worldwide. Here in Kenya we got our Kenyan Sign Language recognized by the new Constitution, we are yet to finalize the Language Policy...this outcry should be our stepping stone to even a stronger advocacy for greater involvement, greater participation of the Deaf Kenyans in their own affairs and those that improve the quality of life.
- ‘It could never happen here.’ Sadly, whilst out-and-out frauds like this may be rare, any Deaf person can tell you that there are hordes of ‘unconsciously incompetent’ signers out there making a living by accepting interpreting work that is way beyond their capability. It’s true all around the globe. What’s worse, it happens under the noses of the authorities, who pay the bills without caring enough to take responsibility for standards. We must make them care. As you may recall during the March 2013 elections the Deaf in Kenya complained of the interpreter at the election tally center however the Electoral Commission did not respond favorably, currently there are moments when Deaf people have stopped an interpreter in the middle of a session or meeting due to quality issues....my question to KTN and the rest do you care enough to stop the injustice?
Thamsanqa Dyantyi happens to be South African, but the issues he has highlighted are global. Nelson Mandela’s death has lit an unexpected spark: and as Mandela himself said, “The time is always ripe to do right”.
My thanks and appreciation to Professor Graham Turner who is the Chair of Translation & Interpreting Studies at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. He leads the team now running the first ever degree course in BSL in Scotland.