Thamsanqa Jantjie considers himself a “champion of sign language”. That depends on your definition of champion. If you consider a champion to be someone who brings attention (positive or negative) to an issue then sure, he’s a champion. But if you think that a champion has to do good for a cause or is a winner in some way, then Jantjie’s self-proclaimed title is in doubt. You see, Jantjie is the sign language interpreter who caused a righteous furore at global peace icon Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.
The attention he garnered may all have been negative (putting South African security protocols in a bad light), but he did underline the importance of qualified and talented sign language interpreters at major events.
There’s more to sign language interpretation than meets the eye
Spoken languages depend on subtle vocal inflections and nuances; meaning varies according to the emphasis placed on certain words and even certain parts of words. It stands to reason that sign language is just as affected by subtle changes in gestures and facial expressions. This means that it takes more than technical knowledge to be a sign language interpreter; it also takes bodily and facial animation and, more importantly, control.
This was perfectly highlighted by Lydia Callis in November 2012, when she interpreted New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s many public addresses as the state prepared for Hurricane Sandy – and then tried to cope with the storm’s devastating effects. Callis went viral on social media networks as people were captivated by the energy and animation with which she imbued her sign language. According to The Atlantic’s Arika Okrent, she was dubbed Hurricane Sandy’s breakout star – the tastefulness of which may or may not be questioned.
Okrent makes a point of saying that Callis’ animation shouldn’t be considered outstandingly amazing because all sign language speakers – the eloquent ones – use big gestures and facial expressions when they talk. The simple fact is that sign language is visual, so it has to be vibrant. The movements and expressions, according to Okrent, are essential components of sign language grammar. Meaning is lost without them.
Becoming a sign language interpreter
According to Jamie Berke, sign language interpreters are increasingly in demand. As demand grows, so does the demand for regulation – as the dust settles on the Jantjie debacle, you can see why. In the United States, for example, professional interpreters need a bachelor degree (associate degree at the least) and it’s strongly recommended that they be properly certified. The National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf provide three levels of national certification: National Interpreter Certification (NIC), NIC Advanced and NIC Master.
In addition to the technical skills, professional sign language interpreters need certain personality traits and social skills. According to Deaf Expressions, this includes awareness of and sensitivity to different cultures (this is very important in increasingly multi-cultural communities and global business environments).
The ability to dissect social situations is also essential. For example, interpreters may be called upon to interpret conversations in large groups where more than one person is speaking at the same time. So, the ability to weed out unnecessary chatter and focus on what’s important is critical. It’s also important that interpreters are aware of the jargon, slang and intricacies of the job, culture or language of the job. For example, they need to be able to convey puns or complicated technical explanations. As Deaf Expressions points out, there are often no accepted signs for highly specialised terms or jargon, so interpreters have to spell them out. This takes time and patience, not to mention smarts and dedication.
Finally, as with all translation and interpretation, sign language interpreters need to abide by a code of ethics. Confidentiality and impartiality are essential, as is honesty. So, if interpreters find that they are struggling in a certain situation, they need to tell their clients, otherwise they risk serious miscommunication and possibly even offense.
Jemima Winslow has a face that gives away her thoughts before she can put them in words. Unfortunately she has no control over it, and this, combined with an inability to remain impartial, mean that she is wholly unsuited to any interpretation job, let alone sign language interpretation.
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