At Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday – a solemn affair attended by heads of state from around the world – one disrespectful charlatan disrupted an entire community’s experience with this poignant moment of the heart.
An article from the New York Post reported the fiasco, and it really hit home because of what I do on a daily basis. A fake sign language interpreter responsible for signing in a way that covers South Africa’s 11 official languages stood on an international stage and used made up gestures that were nothing but gibberish to the deaf community.
You don’t do that to Nelson Mandela. You don’t do that to the deaf community. And you simply don’t make a mockery of an entire profession of people who are proud of making a difference.
I’m a member of the language service community and I’m angry with the few bad apples that spoil the bunch. The sad fact is that entry barriers are getting lower and lower for language service professions. Sure, there are certifications, but plenty of misfits can and do slip through the net.
Moments like this can be avoided. There is more to translation than a few years of French in college or knowing some sign language. The art is to adapt the essence of what someone is saying and have it make sense to other cultures with different languages. Word-for-word translation falls short of the mark.
Anyone can write up a resume and hang their hat as a translator. It’s unfortunate for our industry and those we serve, but it’s also a reality. Incidents like this will continue to happen until people realize they can’t take credentials for granted. Buying language services is a leap of faith – a leap that needs to be treated with greater care.
Since you rely entirely on your translator and can’t tell for yourself if they are making mistakes, it becomes all the more important to get and check references, verify credentials and certifications, obtain examples of past work and so on.
I fear that in an industry where quality is increasingly taken for granted and price becomes the major deciding factor, backlash like the disgraceful performance at Mandela’s service could become all the more frequent.
With today’s increase in diversity and globalization, this is simply unacceptable.