Mad Max, a sign language interpreter and a blind proctor walk into a bar

The bad sign language interpreter at Mandela’s service prompted gotcha journalism from El País, sadly mistaking an opportunity to educate for a license to ridicule.

Note: I put this initially on my “after hours joint” but decided quite a while afterwards to move it over here to Reno Languages; after all, the topic is strongly tied to my work.

Mad Max hunting for sign language interpreter clowns
Illustration from the Mad Max video game

A sign language interpreter does serious business, so I expect news articles about the subject to match it in rigor. Sometimes, however, journalistic comedy ends up writing itself on the back of some ridiculous misunderstanding of the issues underlying the story at hand. Not so much due to a circumstantial lack of factual knowledge (because accidents can happen when trying to report both early and comprehensively, and I don’t count honest mistakes as farcical relief) but more due to a simple lack of common sense and basic analytic skills, applied to what is well-known already. It gets better still when it is accompanied by a straight-faced accusation of ridicule. In the case prompting me to write this, it tops all as it is served with an extra side of smug lecturing on incompetence (indeed) and topped generously with an undue projection of shortcomings, onto an entire nation no less.

All that is presented with a pinch of moral superiority, unceremoniously falling flat when it meets just half-serious scrutiny. The sweet-as-honey dessert inevitably comes in the shape of a capital H for ignoramus hypocrisy, because the underlying cause of the reported mishap that all the editors involved here so flagrantly missed – oh irony – should actually ring very familiar to those same editors, by the way: of a newspaper with a stellar reputation. Because they are fed a steady diet of it, in Spain itself, of governmental nepotism and backroom deals, with obscure intermediaries wrangling kickbacks and shady bookkeeping practices, leading to virtually uncontested sweetheart deals for companies that are invisibly tied to leaders of the political party in power. Deals that all too often fall woefully short on quality, accountability and economy; deals that as they blow up reveal the parties involved as utter idiots, furiously shifting blame, justifying their incompetence, crying foul play, and/or minimizing the accident as just a minor mishap.

Enough anticipatory prose already, now let the real fun begin. When I refer to the weight of reality bearing down, following a longstanding bad addiction to hiring underpaid and unqualified people for heavy lifting in serious places, this is what I mean:

Editorial criticism on bad professionals must lead by example

El País mistranslates a bad sign language interpreter as a circus clown
From: El País, fetched on December 22, 2013 at 8:53am CET from the front page of its website in its edition for the Americas.

I’m not referring here to Mr. Thamsanqa Jantjie, the now infamously incompetent “sign interpreter” who during the worldwide televised Nelson Mandela memorial service unwittingly ended up doing the global profession of the sign language interpreter a world of good, no doubt very much to his own chagrin.

Extra, extra: Sloppy journalism exposes Spain to ridicule

I’m referring to that snapshot above of the article itself, as evidence suggesting that South Africa correspondent Marta Rodríguez and the staff back in Madrid of El País were all so much overcome by emotions at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service that they were practically unconscious when the resulting article and its subsequent summary on the front page were typed up and pushed out into the world. Either that, or they really should try to find ways to pay for more competent people to write articles about incompetent others. Here’s what went wrong, exemplified in the title and the byline shown above. An English translation of the title says:

Deciphering the interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service

This is of course intended as a pun, a riff off the “interpreter” – those quotes are mine – whose signs were hardly intelligible, and so present the curious paradox of an altogether incomprehensible interpreter. Then again, some suggest that Mr Jantjie made brilliant sense, in a Dada-meets-Surrealism improv way. Semioticians of the world, unite! (Side note to fellow Spanish grammar geeks: am I really the only one taking exception to that awful “Descifrando” or do you agree that the rogue gerund is in fact bad Spanish?)

The byline is what derails the train for me. Here’s an English version:

The translation [sic] into sign language by Tantjie [sic] made South Africa look ridiculous [everywhere a sic sic]

I suppose it can be considered nitpicking when I question the validity of the noun “translation”, wondering how that jibes with its preceding title as it implicitly denies the use of the very same term. I suspect a meddlesome editor butchered the byline by unhelpfully removing a necessary qualifier of “translation”, now lacking an adjective such as incompetent, incomprehensible, or gibberish. On another sidenote: translation is a term applied to written texts, while spoken texts are interpreted. Get the professional details right while you mock an interpreter, rightly or wrongly, but especially before giving in to an urge to pontificate about exposure to international ridicule.

Moving on: if at all you must refer to an entire country being exposed to ridicule as the consequence of someone’s inability to interpret into another language, you don’t really do your credibility as an arbiter of accuracy and precision much of a favor by misspelling the name of the culprit. Because the same name appears otherwise correctly spelled throughout the rest of the article. Copy editor, where were you?

Actually, you know what? I do take exception to the ridiculous proposition that South Africa was exposed to ridicule, just because some moonlighter and the company that hired him were rather visibly exposed as incompetent hacks. I believe the sentiment that the author really intended to reflect was actually embarrassment, over a government messing up colossally on an internationally televised event. Certainly not ridicule. Why not? Because I’m not too sure there are that many countries that have a commitment to systematically engage a sign interpreter at major events. If that really were the case I’d be willing to agree that Mr Jantjie’s gig looks suspiciously like a ridiculously transparent attempt at looking the part on the cheap, as a politically hyper-correct form of CYA, you know: making sure you look good, by suggesting you care for “those poor handicapped people” just because you actually provide some convincingly gesticulating idiot, like they themselves do… And who’s to tell whether it’s any good; who cares anyway! Right?

Yes, I agree: that’d look decidedly bad, and would indeed be cause for cross-border ridicule.

The problem with that approach here is that the South African government’s organization of the Mandela memorial can be reasonably deemed to having acted at the forefront of promoting language accessibility at a highly visible event. Think about it: how many times do you really see a sign language interpreter that prominently, at work at an international event, sharing the spoken statements with the deaf and hard of hearing? Exactly: not that many. Contrast that with spoken language conference interpreters: they are a staple of summits, conferences and other international events. So, the South African government in its attempt to serve the noble goal of accessibility is nowhere near an apt target for accusations of exposing the country it governs to ridicule when the interpreter in question just happens to turn out a total lemon.

Sign language interpreter, rise and shine

Speaking in testimony of the relative obscurity of sign interpreters at major events, there are recent examples found in the viral YouTube popularity of e.g Holly Maniatty, a sign interpreter who shot to stardom this summer by doing a signed rap interpreting performance onstage with the Wu-Tang Clan, and Claire Koch, a 5-year old girl who even more recently signed for her deaf parents in the audience, during her kindergarten holiday concert. Both have become overnight such raging internet hits that I think it’s clear that the sign interpreter is far from an everyday phenomenon – yet. Again, for the South African government to arrange for a sign language interpreter during a truly historic event, organized on short notice after Nelson Mandela passed away, serves much more as an internationally laudable gesture of good will toward the deaf and hard of hearing, rather than deserving to be portrayed as a magnet for international ridicule because the person they hired for the job bombed badly.

In fact, I’ll swap the perspective around: the journalist in question – and through her, the news outlet she writes for – is betrayed here by an unsettling amount of preoccupation with extraneous things like pride, external perception of one’s self (otherwise better known as vanity) and especially selective perception. Admittedly, the ANC-led government of South Africa has otherwise a widely reported problem with recurring issues of nepotism, cliques and other such challenges for transparency and accountability that any healthy democracy requires to function properly. And sure enough, the initial response of government spokespeople to inquiries about the fake interpreter fracas was, beyond defensive, outright deflective and almost obsessively pointing elsewhere for blame.

That doesn’t speak much for an authoritative, assertive and self-assured governmental response to this PR banana peel. But was that really so much unusual, given the context of related events? I don’t think so. Just think for example about the US Secret Service’s resolute denial of responsibility, concerning the close physical proximity of the US President to the fake signer, who was situated literally next to Mr Obama. Whether reasonable or not, such hiding behind the host country’s responsibility in vetting and screening arrangements for security rings somewhat hollow considering the inherent core mission of the Secret Service, not to mention the well-known antecedents where lacking security allowed major tragedies to happen. Of course I’m not knocking the Secret Service here; I’m merely pointing out that circumstantially not being able to control 100% of the ingredients and therefore running the risk of a mishap doesn’t necessarily make the whole outfit an incompetent bunch.

Therefore, that reasonable margin for credit should be applied also, I think, to the South African government when making preparations on such short notice for an event where government leaders from all over the world gathered to pay their last respects to a great man.

In fact, I submit that the South African government in the final balance took the best possible of decisions, following Mr Jantjie’s catastrophic performance: they admitted that there’s a structural problem, that the problem lies principally in an unchecked reliance on external suppliers, and that there will be major changes in that testing for obtaining signing credentials will become standardized, accountable and transparent. What more can one reasonably expect than a promise to avoid repetitions? That would be ridiculous on an arguably interplanetary scale.

Finally: lessons to be learned here

A sign language interpreter is fortunately an increasingly common asset at major events
(Photo: Elvert Barnes)

Speaking of adopting a forward-thinking attitude, that is precisely what the professional community did – not just of sign interpreters all over the world, but interpreters providing services for spoken languages in general. That is why I think commentary articles such as this one by Cathy Heffernan offer a much more productive and, dare I say: more useful analysis of what really happened, of what the true significance is of the “series of unfortunate events” (I just couldn’t resist that nod to Saturday Night Live) involving that fake interpreter in South Africa.

The byline of that article by Cathy Heffernan really hits bullseye on the key issue here, the much wider implication of Mr Jantjie’s incompetent performance, recognizing it as a symptom of a truly worldwide problem:

Poor quality sign language interpreting is a common problem. I hope the media focus on Thamsanqa Jantjie goes some way to solve it.

Frankly, I am baffled that not that correspondent for South Africa but apparently the foreign news editorial staff of El País could miss this gigantic flashing sign, as it so poignantly also applies to the woefully lacking accreditation standards and regulation of use of sign language interpreters in Spain itself. Then again, maybe it’s not just nicer and wiser but more productive above all to consider that misguided article in El País as another learning opportunity. As the conclusion of Ms Heffernan’s excellently written Op-Ed says:

As people across the world discuss this tale, they are learning that getting up and moving your hands does not make you a sign language interpreter.

True enough, it seems more and more stories come out of people realizing that interpreters aren’t decoration, answering to some cultural market demand for exotic aesthetics. We interpreters perform a very practical function: we reduce exclusion, foster understanding, bolster communication, boost health care… An interpreter seriously isn’t there to look pretty. They’re about ready to get that point in Seattle, too.

Still, I can’t help but wonder why it is that in this case, revolving around interpreting quality problems leading to clearly bad results, El País didn’t realize sooner that maybe it could be helpful to consult an expert. Not just an interpreter but a sign language expert, of course. When an accidental, catastrophic failure of an engineering project takes place I’m very confident that the digital rolodexes are furiously spinning nearly immediately, if only to prepare those great infographic presentations together with some helpful expert clarification.

Here, a brief conversation with a professional sign language interpreter would have dispelled the myth of spoken languages being necessarily in direct relation with sign language. Sure enough, there’s American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) but those two are, incidentally, much less mutually intelligible than for example French Sign Language and ASL are, due to how each language originated and evolved. It’s just an illustration that it all boils down, as is the case so often in life, to actually knowing your stuff before going out there and pontificating and lecturing to the wider world.

So one wonders if there is anything else in play here, precluding otherwise intelligent people from making the most obvious choice to reduce uncertainty and consult with experts on the topic of intercultural communication. Nah. Why stoop down to commons sense when there’s convoluted, jingoistic and visceral point-and-laugh, when wildly galloping topic drift sells much more paper, and invocations of international ridicule invites more “likes” on Facebook? It’s almost like an archetypal male shuddering at the thought of ever asking for directions.

It’s a Mad Max world

Switching over now, finally, to my last point in this long reflection of my equally large astonishment over sloppy, base and unthinking reporting – and once more: I’m not concerned with factual errors, it’s missing the entire forest for the trees what totally baffles me – the article just breathes an insufferable air of not just false superiority but triumphant vindication, as if the correspondent revels in the notion of nailing the South African government in an iconic gotcha journalism moment to some proverbial cross.

Gotcha journalism, that recourse of weaker journalistic minds lost to the world in a raging lust for infotainment, on an ongoing quest for the next virtual fix. That product of frantic searches for profitable bottom lines, for viral memes, for spiking visitor stats, in short: in pursuit of notoriety, not acknowledgment and respect for shrewd analysis and sexy common sense… Oh, Eldorado: we’re back to where we could have started.

It does remind me of a certain dystopian figure, roaming in a devastated world aimlessly navigating wrecks of ages long gone, always in search of pockets of fuel and supplies, strewn all over a desert where packs of parasitic gangs rove, trolling for prey and the same dwindling fuel and supplies. Unfortunately, the Mad Max reporter in this story doesn’t end up teaching the bad sign language interpreter guys a lesson. Max just staggers out into the desert only to get lost, confused by all that sand, all those shiny little things… Oh look, there’s one over there, surely the most ridiculous thing on Earth, the biggest laughing-stock on this side of the solar system… I don’t know. Maybe there’s a pint of fuel to be had from this story, after all.