Sign language interpreters have been in the spotlight lately. Videos of Holly Maniatty, who has interpreted for hip hop artists like the Wu Tang Clan, Eminem, and Jay-Z, have been very popular among people with and without hearing impairments. To watch Maniatty at a Snoop Dogg concert, click here.
Maniatty seems to take her work very seriously. She told CBC radio that she prepares for a concert months in advance – not just learning the songs, but also studying the meanings behind them, the performer’s background, etc:
“When I was getting ready for the Wu-Tang show, they talk about riots in the street. And at that time, the Ferguson riots were just kind of finishing up, so of course your mind would jump there because that’s a current event. But you kind of have to take a moment, go see when that song was written, and see that they’re probably talking about the L.A. riots. And then think about something that’s more iconic about the L.A. riots in terms of visual accessibility, and kind of build your interpretation that way to make it as authentic and close to the meaning of the person who wrote it.”
Her commitment and energy help deaf people enjoy major music performances alongside their hearing peers. Maniatty told USA Today that, “If they are dropping with the beat and the crowd, bumpin’ to a particular rhyme, etc., mission accomplished! Music is such a personal experience – to be a part of that for an audience is truly a privilege.”
Unfortunately, not all stories about sign language interpreters have been this positive. Several interpreters hired for major events have signed utter nonsense, much to the frustration of deaf attendees and viewers.
Back in 2013, at the funeral of anti-apartheid icon and former president Nelson Mandela, interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie reportedly made no sense in any of South Africa’s 11 official languages. Bruno Druchen, director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, told the Associated Press that Jantjie was “moving his hands around, but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for.” Click here to watch a clip of this.
Jantjie later claimed to be having a schizophrenic episode during the funeral, and said that he was unable to interpret the speech because he was hallucinating and hearing voices. Nevertheless, his qualifications as an interpreter remain dubious, and he has refused to demonstrate his skills. Moreover, his history of mental health issues – which appears to be legitimate, and includes some violent episodes and a year of psychiatric hospitalization – raises the question of whether it was safe to even have him on stage with world leaders.
More recently, two very similar incidents have made the news in the U.S. In September, as Hurricane Irma approached Florida, officials held a news conference to explain mandatory evacuation orders. Deaf residents were unable to understand this critical information because the interpreter, a lifeguard named Marshall Greene, apparently signed totally irrelevant things like “pizza,” and “bear monster.” Viewers also reported that it was very difficult to see what he was signing because he had a light skin tone and was wearing a yellow shirt – experienced interpreters should know to wear something that contrasts more with their skin color. You can watch the video, along with subtitles of what the man was actually signing, here.
Also in Florida, people with hearing impairments received an onslaught of gibberish from a woman named Derlyn Roberts, attempting to interpret at a news conference regarding the arrest of a suspected serial killer. Rachell Settambrino, who is deaf and teaches college-level sign language classes, told the Tampa Bay times that “She sat up there and waved her arms like she was singing Jingle Bells.” Here is a video of her performance.
The Bottom Line
It appears that often, very little regard is given to the qualifications of sign language interpreters. This is a major insult to deaf viewers, and in some cases may even pose a threat to safety. Of course, many interpreters do a fantastic job; Holly Maniatty is just one example. To ensure that people who are deaf or hearing impaired are able to have equal access to important events and news, organizers must stop treating the recruitment of an interpreter as a mere afterthought. For people who cannot hear the main act, the interpreter defines the experience.
CBC Radio: How sign language interpreter Holly Maniatty keeps music accessible
USA Today: This ASL interpreter steals the show at rap concerts
The Telegraph: What happened to the fake Nelson Mandela Interpreter?
CNN Video: Mandela memorial sign language interpreter fights back
The New York Times: Sign Language Interpreter Warned of ‘Pizza’ and ‘Bear Monster’ at Irma Briefing
New York Post: Sign language interpreter delivered gibberish at serial killer press conference