Professor Graham Turner: 10 lessons from the tale of the ‘fake’ interpreter

Posted on December 13, 2013

We may have thought sign language interpreting reached peak prominence when the Queen was shadowed by an interpreter at the opening of the London Paralympic Games in September 2012 .

Then the bar was raised when Mayor Bloomberg made announcements about Hurricane Sandy to New Yorkers and his interpreter became a media star.

But all bets are now well and truly off. Thamsanqa Dyantyi, the South African who appeared on the platform at the Nelson Mandela memorial event in Soweto this week, is the most famous sign language interpreter on the planet.

There’s just one teeny, tiny problem – as the Limping Chicken brought to wider attention. Dyantyi may not be an interpreter. He didn’t use South African Sign Language. In fact, he didn’t use any language. What he produced there was 100% authentic gibberish.

The world’s media have gobbled up the story with great relish. Dyantyi has tried to dig himself out of the hole. He said he was overcome by a schizophrenic episode that made him see angels. Not everyone is convinced. The authorities have singularly failed to account for his presence. And it’s not the first time Dyantyi has been seen faking in this capacity.

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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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. This must stop.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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.

  1. ‘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.
  1. 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.
  1. ‘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.
  1. ‘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.
  1. ‘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.

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”.

Professor Graham Turner is 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.

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