Fake interpreter is one sign of crazy times

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Fakers are gonna fake. In what has to be one of the great paradoxes of human behavior, fakers have a way of rising to the level of their incompetence the moment they begin to believe their own fakery.

That's also when they get busted, unless they're Bernie Madoff relying upon the self-deception of the victims to get away with fakery for decades.

South African sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie stood on stage for hours during this week's memorial service for Nelson Mandela, ostensibly translating the speeches and condolences of world leaders who had come to pay their respects. It was a big responsibility for which Mr. Jantjie was being paid about $85.

Deaf people watching Mr. Jantjie's expressionless face and random hand gestures knew early on that he was either the worst sign language interpreter of all time or a total fraud. Unfortunately, the furious tweets reacting to Mr. Jantjie's nonsensical signing didn't reach anyone in a position to yank him from the stage at FNB Stadium in Soweto.

Incredibly, a man that much of the deaf world knew immediately was a fraud continued to stand only a few feet from many of the world's top leaders. When pressed to explain what he was thinking with so many presidents, prime ministers and dignitaries surrounding him, Mr. Jantjie made a strange confession:

"What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium," Mr. Jantjie told an Associated Press interviewer in broken English.

"I start realizing that the problem [hallucination] is here. And the problem, I don't know the attack of this problem, how will it comes. Sometimes, I react violent on that place. Sometimes, I will see things that chase me," he said.

"I was in a very difficult position," he said with breathtaking understatement. "And remember those people, the president and everyone, they were armed; there was armed police around me. If I start panicking [because of the hallucinations] I'll start being a problem."

Mr. Jantjie also conveniently copped to being a schizophrenic who was scheduled to get a mental health exam the day of the Mandela memorial. He was to be tested to determine whether he should be hospitalized. He also said he'd spent a year-and-a-half in a psychiatric facility, but he insisted that his sign language skills were top-notch despite previous complaints by those who had seen his work and pronounced it worthless.

Criticism of Mr. Jantjie's poor-to-non-existent interpreting skills arose months ago, but nobody took it seriously, including the South African government, which had a previous event ruined by his incessant clowning.

Still, none of this explains how an unqualified interpreter was able to get within inches of the most powerful leaders on the planet. Even his employers have "vanished" -- assuming they ever existed -- leaving Mr. Jantjie to face the music alone. No one in the South African government has taken responsibility for hiring him.

Besides the appalling security lapse it represents, what many looking at this absurd episode want to know is why Mr. Jantjie didn't high-tail it out of Soweto after bluffing his way through the first speech. If he truly was hallucinating, he risked raising the suspicions of several Secret Service details by continuing his nonsensical signing. At any moment, he could've been dragged from the podium and arrested if even one security person knew sign language.

Consequently, sticking to his script of useless gestures was risky with little upside. Millions of people in the stadium and watching on television could see for themselves how useless his skills really were during the long memorial service. Even folks who don't know sign language might have suspected he was signing gibberish because there was little variation in how he used his hands, regardless of what the speakers said.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh, especially if Mr. Jantjie really is suffering from a variety of mental health ailments that he can't control. Maybe he even believes he's a competent interpreter. But there's no excuse for the South African government allowing a man with such poor communication skills and questionable grasp on reality to be within striking distance of so many world leaders.

Had Mr. Jantjie become violent and attacked someone before being shot to death, there would have been no end of conspiracy theories explaining the incident. The truth would've been too strange to even consider.

Still, other than the massive insult to deaf people, an international incident was averted. Mr. Jantjie now joins Iraq war minister of information "Baghdad Bob" and Grammy-winning pop duo Milli Vanilli as among the notorious, but essentially harmless, fakes who can be trivia question answers many years from now.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?