Originally published by the Duluth News Tribune.

Citation:  Bowen-Bailey, D. (2014, January 7). The painful irony of “fake interpreter” at Mandela’s memorial. Duluth News Tribune. Retrieved March 6, 2014, from http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/288017/

A luta continua.

This Portugese phrase, which translates as “the struggle continues,” was in popular use during the efforts in southern Africa to end colonialism and white-minority rule. In the face of arrests, defeat, and death, it was a defiant statement of optimism that all of the sacrifice would one day be worth it.

This past week, the world has celebrated the gains and mourned the loss in the passing of Nelson Mandela. His life is a great example of commitment to liberation and freedom. Yet his memorial service also brought reminders that the struggle still continues. In the midst of all of the tributes to Mandela as a champion of human rights, an injustice was perpetrated. The person who was on stage with the purpose of interpreting the speeches into South African sign language, simply waved his hands in visual gibberish.

For me, as a sign language interpreter who came to the field as a hearing person with a degree in African Studies, this event caused many emotions. Within interpreting and Deaf communities, this situation has been a cause of uproar. The irony of Mandela’s memorial being tainted by having an interpreter who did not provide any access is painful.

Mandela would certainly have seen it as an outrage. As President, he was a force behind South Africa becoming one of the first nations to sign on to the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This commitment was a part of Mandela’s broader effort to steer South Africa in the direction of being a more just society, and so a step backwards as what happened for the deaf communities of South Africa (and the world) would be a call to arms for Mandela.

Yet in my conversations with interpreters and deaf people about this, outrage is not the universal response. Many people see it as humorous. In one high profile example, on December 11, the Today show briefly showed a man in a circle on the screen who appeared to be acting as an incompetent interpreter before the show’s hosts shut down the prank.   London’s Daily Mail reported, “The tasteless gag elicited an apology tweet from Today almost immediately.”

People’s taste in humor can certainly vary, yet what people who are in the language majority don’t realize is how pervasive this lack of access really is.  Kelby Brick, a deaf lawyer in Maryland, wrote in The Baltimore Sun, “Unfortunately, what happened merely highlighted what has become the norm for deaf people all over the world — including in America.” Far too often, deaf people and other linguistic minorities, are denied communication at vital times in their life:  school, medical appointments, business transactions, funerals, the list goes on and on.  The reasons are multi-faceted.  There is a shortage of qualified interpreters to meet the need and many areas do not have established standards for interpreting quality.  (This is the case in South Africa where there are no legal standards, but the same is true in Minnesota for areas such as business or religious settings.)   Moreover, as the profession has grown, some interpreter referral agencies, particularly ones who focus on spoken languages, have found increased profit margins by sending out less qualified (and less expensive) interpreters.

Regardless of reasons, the reality is that we still have a long way to go to reach the ideal for which Mandela spoke about during his trial by the South African apartheid regime before he was sentence to his prison term:

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

To the benefit of the world, Mandela was able to live his life in pursuit of this ideal. Yet at the marking of his death, the “fake interpreter” reminds us that the struggle does indeed continue so that all may have equal opportunities. To achieve this will take more than deaf people fighting for their rights or interpreters advocating for access and justice. It will take all of us – in the United States, in South Africa, and around the globe – to realize that any people being disempowered diminishes us all. When we embrace that ideal, we can begin to experience the truth of another slogan of the South African liberation movement:

Amandla ngwethu.

The power is ours.

Doug Bowen-Bailey works as an interpreter and educator. His B.A. degree is in African Studies from Macalester College. He is grateful to members of the deaf community who provided input on this article, including Trudy Suggs, and Todd Pleski.

Further resources on the topic for the website:

Tribute to Nelson Mandela 1918 – 2013

from the World Federation of the Deaf


The Mandela sign interpreter has done deaf people a favour

by Cathy Heffernan


Fake Interpreter Draws Ire

by Kelby Brick


The World Still Does Not Understand Us

by Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff


The fake sign language interpreter: A need for leadership intervention just like Mandela called it

by Mark “Kojo” Kamissah


Legitimate Interpretations of the Mandela Memorial in South African Sign Language, International Sign, and American Sign Language:


For Reference

Today show mocks fraudulent Mandela memorial sign language interpreter with offensive gag on live television