Sign Language Interpreters – Pulling Focus and Faces


“Oh, look! There’s that person in the bottom-left of the TV screen, waving their hands and making funny faces!”

“What… the sign language interpreter?”

“Oh THAT’S what they are?!”

Let’s clarify a few things before I continue with this post:

  1. The interaction above ACTUALLY happened with a person well over the age of 18. I was probably as shocked as you are right now…
  2. Despite using BSL, being a linguist, and having interpreted several spoken languages many times, I am not a qualified sign language interpreter, so the views are ‘from the outside looking in.’

There have been swathes of blogs, vlogs, articles and tweets recently about sign language interpreters. While it’s not my intention to repeat what has been said by countless others, I wanted to present two sides to the recent increase in “awareness” of these incredibly talented folk (perhaps with an exception for the first example).

In 2013, much attention was drawn to the funeral of Nelson Mandela, if not for the service in general, then for the sign language interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, who was beside the main speakers (and himself it seems):

The global Deaf community was in uproar over this fake interpreter, insisting on anything from him being barred from ‘interpreting’ to having his hands cut off (!), and Deaf American actress Marlee Matlin referring to his actions as “appaling” and “offensive:”

Thamsanqa went on to star in a TV advert. Go figure…

However, after this event, there seemed to be a peak in the interest of sign language interpreters. Whether this was due to a knock-on effect after the aforementioned video went viral, or that there have been a greater number of televised interpreted events, I’m not sure, but here are a two examples of interpreters that have ‘gone viral.’

Jonathan Lamberton:

Mark Cave:

The ‘still’ on Mark Cave’s video represents one of the issues that a myriad of sign language users have seen (and which no doubt caused a collective facepalm): are the videos going viral for the wrong reason? A quick search on YouTube can reveal many videos of people imitating interpreters (à la Mr Jantjie), perhaps to the point of rudeness, intentionally or otherwise.

To those who haven’t used a sign language before, here’s a heads up: the face is an integral part to any sign language utterance. Different facial gestures indicate things like intensity, uncertainty and repetition, and often serves to disambiguate signs that may have the same manual component (i.e. two signs may show the hands doing the same thing, but an aspect of the face shows the difference in the meaning). This is a key indicator as to why the first video in this post shows a fraud: there are little to no facial expressions exhibited. Without facial gestures t’d be like trying to read a written text… except the printer omitted the top half of all the characters and three-quarters of the words are missing in their entirety.

Debates are raging about freedom of speech more than ever, and the Internet reigns as the (virtual) land of free speech… and ridicule. At what point, if there is any threshold at all, does poking fun at languages that are so engrained and cherished in global cultures go from being “a bit of fun” to being offensive? Are such claims of real interpreters being fake, or the creation of parody videos, a slap in the face to the profession and the global Deaf culture as a whole, or should this all be taken with a pinch (or bucket) of salt?

Perhaps there is an upshot. Some argue that any publicity is good publicity, and while the truth of that claim is debatable, there has been a greater interest in signed languages since these videos have gone viral. This has led to greater discussions, more media coverage, and a heightened interest in signed languages. Many videos and articles have been published on these events, often with the interpreters themselves offering their explanations as to why they pull these faces, or why their hands may resemble an otherwise pejorative gesture, when it actually conveys a totally different meaning.

I hope that these events create the awareness that signed languages truly merit in the modern world. I can indeed understand the offence that can be and has been caused, but when the hype dies down, perhaps it will lead to a greater understanding of these languages, and a greater interest in Deaf culture and these global communities.

There may even be a spike in interpreters, but I’m led to believe that this is a can of worms best kept closed… for now.


One thought on “Sign Language Interpreters – Pulling Focus and Faces

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s