The Sign Language Interpreter at the Mandela Memorial Was a "Fake"

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 11 2013 9:49 AM

The Sign Language Interpreter at the Mandela Memorial Was a "Fake"

In this picture taken on December 10, 2013 US President Barack Obama delivers a speech next to a sign language interpreter (R) during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg

Photo by Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

Tuesday's massive Mandela memorial in South Africa gave the Internet plenty to talk about: There was Obama's rousing speech itself, his much-noticed (and, in some spheres, heavily freaked-out-about) handshake with Raul Castro, and of course his three-way selfie with a pair of European prime ministers. And now this, via the Associated Press:

A man who provided sign language interpretation on stage for Nelson Mandela's memorial service, attended by scores of heads of state, was a "fake," the national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa said on Tuesday. The unidentified man seen around the world on television next to leaders including United States President Barack Obama "was moving his hands around but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for," Bruno Druchen, the federation's national director, told The Associated Press.

Druchen along with three other sign language experts say the man in question wasn't signing in South African or American sign language. They also say they can rule out any other known sign language because there appeared to be absolutely no structure to the way he was waving his arms and hands around during the speeches. (Another giveaway, experts say, is that the man used no facial expression to convey the emotions of the speaker, a key element in signing.)

As bizarre as the whole thing is, maybe the craziest part about the whole thing is that it doesn't appear to be the first time the man has passed himself off as a professional signer: Druchen says the same man pulled a similar stunt at an event last year that was attended by South African President Jacob Zuma.

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.***

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 


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