I wonder how this happened. It's true, but almost seems too outlandish to be real...
At a memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela held in Johannesburg just a few days ago (on 10 December), a 34-year-old man who claimed to be a sign-language interpreter stood on the podium next to high-ranking international speakers and proceeded to "interpret" what they were saying so that the deaf community could follow the events. The thing is, it turned out afterwards that what he had expressed with his hands was utter nonsense!
Photo: On the right, the sign-language interpreter "punches the air" beside India's President Pranab Mukherjee as he speaks to a full stadium of mourners during a memorial service for President Nelson Mandela (caption and photo credit: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach)
There was quite an uproar among South African viewers and the media reported on the matter as a result. Paul Mashatile, Minister of Arts and Culture, has apologised publicly for the mishap:
"Without passing judgement, nobody should be allowed to undermine our languages. We sincerely apologise to the deaf community and to all South Africans for any offense that may have been suffered."
Fortunately, something good seems to have come of this awful farce. In his statement, Mr Mashatile went on to declare the following:
"We have long recognised the need for the language profession to be reformed and improved. We hope to speedily begin regulating the profession in early 2014 through the South African Language Practitioners' Council Bill, so that this kind of incident doesn't ever happen again."
The South African Language Practitioners' Council Bill was presented to Parliament earlier this year, according to the government announcement, which also explains what it intends to achieve:
"The Bill provides for the regulation of the language profession, it also seeks to regulate the training of language practitioners and provide for control of the accreditation and registration of language practitioners [...] We are confident that the measures in the Bill will go a long way towards elevating the status of the language profession, ensuring that it is properly regulated and that it contributes meaningfully to language preservation and development."
That's certainly good news for professional language practitioners in South Africa. If such people want to be taken seriously and receive adequate pay and recognition for the services they render, they need to obtain adequate professional training that is also reflected in the formal qualifications they acquire. What's more, they need constant practice and ought to keep on acquiring more knowledge in their subject areas throughout their careers ("lifelong learning"/"CPD").
Professional associations can be a big help in this respect, providing they are well organised and focus on meeting international standards among similar groups of professionals, be they language teachers, copy writers, translators or interpreters. Judging by the profile of a South African language practitioner I found on a careers page on the Web, which also provides details of a training institute for translators and a potential government employer, the usual requirements are already in place.
In view of this, it would be particularly interesting to learn how our bogus interpreter actually came to participate in an event of this calibre. Was his engagement intentional? Was he really an experienced interpreter who was simply overwhelmed by the event, as he claims? I doubt it; I don't believe you can keep on getting sign language (or, indeed, any other language) wrong if you really do master it. Perhaps contacts in high places played a role in getting him the assignment, or money did. SA Interpreters, the language company the man apparently worked for, had vanished from the face of the earth when Reuters attempted to get an interview, they say. Well, whatever happened, I'm confident the South African government will vet the language companies it contracts quite carefully from now on, meaning standards will improve.
Reuters' own report on 12 Dec. 2013
Announcement by South Africa's Minister of Arts and Culture
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