Charlie Swinbourne: How our news article triggered worldwide coverage of the ‘fake’ sign language interpreter story

Posted on December 13, 2013



I don’t think I ever thought that one day, through this site, I’d get to break a news story that – within a matter of hours – would spark coverage across the world.

Three days later, my email and Twitter accounts have only just returned to normal and I keep thinking: ‘did any of that really happen?’

When I first saw the sign language interpreter up on stage during the Nelson Mandela memorial service, I was delighted.

When Mandela died, BBC News dropped their daily signed lunchtime bulletin, which hugely disappointed Deaf people here in the UK (it wasn’t the first time they’ve done this for a big news story).

So I thought that South Africa was giving us a shining example of how things should be done.

Then, as I watched the service, and saw the interpreter seemingly translating what world leaders and members of Mandela’s family were saying, I noticed something amiss.

What stood out – for me and my wife, and every other Deaf person watching – was the interpreter’s lack of facial expression, the way his signs seemed to be punched out in threes or fours, and the strange repetitive rhythm to his movements. It just didn’t look right.

But I don’t know South African Sign Language. So however strange it was, however different it felt to every other sign language I’ve ever seen, my first response was that maybe this was just the way sign language looked over there.

But that all changed on Tuesday evening, when I found out what Deaf South Africans were saying on Twitter, and for that, we all have to thank the British Deaf activist Alison Bryan (who tweets as @Deaf).

Alison picked up on the outrage that was being expressed by South African Deaf people and highlighted it through her Twitter stream (check out her Storyify of the tweets here).

As I read the tweets, it wasn’t just the fact that Deaf South Africans were upset that struck me – but exactly who was upset.

Wilma Newhoudt is the first Deaf member of the South African Parliament, Vice President of the World Federation of the Deaf, and National Vice Chairperson of Deafsa – that’s the association of Deaf societies in South Africa. When someone like her is writing tweets saying “shame on him,” then you have to take notice.

And she wasn’t alone. South African sign language interpreter Francois Deysel wrote “please can someone ask the interpreter to step down from stage, it is embarrassing and making a mockery of our profession.”

Meanwhile, Braam Jordaan, another member of the WFD and a well-known filmmaker from South Africa, told me that the interpreter had signed on stage before.

That’s when I started writing the story up, as quickly as I could. I knew that the quicker the story could get out there, the sooner people would realise what had happened.

Screen shot 2013-12-13 at 20.51.00

In my article, I started by writing about my first impressions, but the most powerful thing I could do was to simply pass on what Deaf people in South Africa were saying – by embedding their tweets in my article, and explaining why they seemed to be upset.

Moments after it was published, the retweets and mentions of the article were flying down the right-hand side of my computer screen, faster than I’d realised Tweetdeck is capable of.

I then spent several hours on Facebook and Twitter, responding to people, posting the article under several different headings, and sending tweets to news organisations’ twitter accounts and to some high profile individuals, including Deaf Oscar-winning actor Marlee Matlin, who retweeted it straight away. And then the retweets got faster.

In the meantime, Andy Palmer, our Deputy Editor embedded a video so that people could see the interpreter signing for themselves. By midnight, the article had been read 10,000 times in 4 hours, and by the next morning, a further 30,000 people had read it.

This site, which usually gets around 3000-5000 views a day, then started struggling under the weight of the traffic, and I was grateful to the Deaf people whose suggestions helped me fix it! (Some stats. By the end of the week, we’d had 200,000 views on the site, with our video, which was widely embedded, clocking up over 1 million views).

I realised the article had made an impact that morning when I found that I had been quoted on the Daily Mail website, the Guardian,  BBC’s website, and in an article in Australia’s The Age – which led Time magazine’s website to publish their story on it.

One of the earliest articles to mention us came on UPI, and we were also cited in The Week, Stuff, the Independent, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Toronto Sun, among hundreds of others (click here to see our impact via Google).

Braam Jordaan has since told me that he sent our article to Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), who then interviewed him and covered the story, going on to be cited in over 8000 news sources. (Braam also created the now ubiquitous #fakeinterpreter hashtag on Twitter, which was used over 1 million times in one day.)

On Wednesday, I got numerous calls and emails from various journalists, which in their own way showed the lack of knowledge about sign language that is out there, because some of them presumed I was a sign language expert just because I’m deaf.

One newspaper asked me to watch the video of the interpreter signing to spot where he was going wrong, and comment on his style. Rather than make the same mistake as the interpreter had, I put them (and a few others) directly in touch with Deaf South African Sign Language users, and the DCAL centre in London.

It’s been fascinating seeing how the story developed in such a short space of time – partly because of social media, but also because so many news organisations were still in South Africa after the service, and were able to follow it up.

The fast pace of the story hasn’t always been helpful, though. On Wednesday night I wrote two articles, one for the Daily Mirror (which was published yesterday morning), but an article I wrote for another paper was dropped when the interpreter claimed that he’d a schizophrenic episode while signing at the service – which understandably made them much more cautious.

The story is still progressing, with doubts being cast by London’s DCAL centre on the interpreter’s claims of schizophrenic signing (read our story here) and the news that the interpreter was charged with murder ten years ago.

I think it still has a way to go. Everyone in the world who reads the news or has seen a news bulletin in the last 48 hours knows what happened, and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of journalists and documentary filmmakers who will be interested in digging deeper into the interpreter’s story.

I personally would like to know more about Thamasanqa Jantjie, about his life, where he comes from and what led to the events of Tuesday.

But I also hope that further stories or documentaries about him will look past simply his own story, and also look at the wider picture for Deaf people who use sign language in South Africa.

Surely the fact that this man had signed on stage before (badly), and complaints had been made about him, yet he was still chosen for an event of such magnitude suggests that something is very wrong with how interpreting is organised there.

For me, the controversy also revealed something a little disturbing about the disconnect between deaf and hearing people – simply in the fact that someone could sign nonsense for so long on stage, at an event broadcast worldwide, without anyone realising, let alone stopping him.

I believe that Deaf people need to be part of booking signers, giving feedback and helping to evaluate them – so that this kind of thing – on a big or small level – doesn’t happen again.

The illusion of access is worse than having no access at all, it’s offensive. It makes a mockery of the language and demeans Deaf people.

However, as Cathy Heffernan wrote for the Guardian yesterday, in a sense, the interpreter did Deaf people a favour.

If nothing else, there is now much more global awareness of the fact that the quality of sign language provision really matters. That wasn’t the case before.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s independent deaf news and deaf blogs website, posting the very latest in deaf opinion, commentary and news, every weekday! Don’t forget to follow the site on Twitter and Facebook, and check out our supporters on the right-hand side of this site or click here.

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