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Sign language interpreter who stood next to Obama at Mandela memorial called a 'fake'

  • mandela-interpreter.jpg

    Dec. 10, 2013: President Barack Obama looks down as he stands next to the sign language interpreter as he makes his speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg. South Africa's deaf federation said on Wednesday that the interpreter on stage for Mandela memorial was a "fake." (AP)

  • interpreter-south-africa.jpg

    Dec. 10, 2013: President Barack Obama waves standing next to the sign language interpreter after making his speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg. South Africa's deaf federation said on Wednesday that the interpreter on stage for Mandela memorial was a 'fake.'AP

A man who stood close to President Barack Obama and other heads of state while providing sign language interpretation at Nelson Mandela’s memorial Tuesday was a “fake” who was making up his own gestures, sign language experts say, raising questions about the security at the event.

"[He] was moving his hands around, but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for," Bruno Druchen, the Deaf Federation of South Africa’s national director, told The Associated Press Wednesday.

The country’s deaf community and the ruling African National Congress have no knowledge of who the man actually is, despite him appearing on television gesticulating alongside South African President Jacob Zuma last year, Reuters reported. Zuma’s office is trying to figure out the man's identity.

"I don't know this guy. He doesn't work for the ANC. It was a government event. Ask them," ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said.

U.S. Secret Service Spokesman Brian Leary told FoxNews.com on Wednesday that the department is aware of the matter, but declined to elaborate.

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a press briefing that he wasn't aware of any security concerns with the man being near Obama.

"I think my only reaction to that is that it's a shame that you had a service that was dedicated to honoring the life and celebrating the legacy of one of the great leaders of the 20th century, [and it] has gotten distracted by this and a few other issues that are far less important than the legacy of Nelson Mandela," he said.

Druchen and three other sign language experts said the man was not signing in South African or American sign languages and could not have been signing in any other known sign language because there was no structure to his arm and hand movements. South African sign language covers all of the country's 11 official languages, according to the federation.

"He didn't follow any of the grammatical rules and structure of the language. He just invented his signs as he went along," Delphin Hlungwane, an official South African sign language interpreter at DeafSA, told Reuters.

"There was zero percent accuracy. He couldn't even get the basics right. He couldn't even say thank you," she added.

Ingrid Parkin, principal of the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg, said she's received complaints from the deaf community from Canada to China about the man on stage and that his movements look "like he's signing gibberish." He also used no facial expression to convey the emotions of the leaders, a key element of sign language interpretation.

"This man himself knows he cannot sign and he had the guts to stand on an international stage and do that," Parkin said.

The scandal over the interpreter is another indication of shoddy organization of the historic memorial service, which took place Tuesday at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa. Other difficulties included public transportation breakdowns which hindered mourners from getting to the event and a faulty audio system that prevented many of the tens of thousands in the stadium from hearing the leaders' speeches. In an apparent security failure, police did not search the first wave of crowds arriving at the stadium.

When the man appeared last year with Zuma, a deaf person in the audience videotaped the event and gave it to the federation for the deaf, which analyzed the video, prepared a report about it and a submitted a formal complaint to the ANC, Druchen said.

In their complaint, the federation suggested that the man should take the five years of training needed to become a qualified sign language interpreter in South Africa.

Druchen said a fresh complaint will be filed to the ANC about the interpreter he called a "fake" with a demand for an urgent meeting.

"It was horrible, an absolute circus, really, really bad," Nicole Du Toit, an official sign language interpreter who also watched the broadcast, told The Associated Press.

Bogus sign language interpreters are a problem in South Africa, because people who know a few signs try to pass themselves off as interpreters, Parkin said. And those hiring them usually don't sign, so they have no idea that the people they are hiring cannot do the job, she said.

"They advertise themselves as interpreters because they know 10 signs and they can make some quick money," said Parkin. "It is plain and simple abuse of the deaf community, they are taking advantage of the deaf community to make money."

FoxNews.com's Greg Norman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.