In December 2013, when South Africa held a state funeral for Nelson Mandela, the entire world was drawn to the televised event. Millions watched as a self-assured man, standing next to illustrious speakers at the event, performed what was generally thought to be sign language interpreting. However, it was quickly revealed that the interpreter was not actually signing in an intelligible manner, and that he was in fact a "fake" interpreter.1 One of the telltale signs was the absence of facial expressions, "which are key in South African sign language,"2 and meaningless hand signals.
The occurrence was later decried by many, in South Africa and abroad: Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman to be elected to the South African parliament, qualified the interpretation as "rubbish" in a tweet, asking that the man be removed from the event. Actors from various Deaf associations expressed shock and anger, as did professional sign language interpreters, criticizing the then-unknown man for "making a mockery out of [their] profession".3
For many viewers outside the Deaf community, this incident was a first contact with sign language interpretation (SLI). While captioning is now fairly widespread for movies and television, online courses, and other prerecorded communications, in many countries SLI is still seldom used in live events, such as conferences, roundtables, and political debates. Not only does this lack of service constitute a challenge for the Deaf community in terms of accessibility to many materials, it also deprives society at large of the contribution from many of deaf and hard-of-hearing people.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things for SLI, making it, for one thing, more familiar in the media landscape. In Canada, the press conferences that punctuated every morning of the first wave saw the emergence of a new phenomenon: the regular presence of ASL and LSQ sign language interpreters alongside the less visible English and French interpreters. They were essential to passing on vital information in those troubled times – in Quebec only, some 4000 people over 15 have a hearing disability.4 As many of us worked from home for the better part of 2020 and 2021, sign language interpreters have become increasingly visible of in our online training sessions, conferences, and even theater performances.
Equal access for Deaf people is guaranteed by the Constitution of South Africa.5 Moreover, deaf students have the right to receive an education in sign language, and this right was made concrete by an official sign language curriculum since 2014.6 As such, sign language interpretation is widespread, and is a normal part of life in schools and post-secondary education institutions of the whole country.
Londiwe Mndaba is a sign language interpreter working out of Durban, South Africa. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts Honours in Language Practice at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, one of the few universities in South Africa to offer specialized training in SLI.
As a South African Sign Language Interpreter (SASLI), Ms. Mndaba provides services for the Deaf community in various fields, from elementary school classes to university seminars. She interprets between English and South African Sign Language (SASL), and from IsiZulu to SASL, and she does voice over when a Deaf person speak to a hearing person or audience.
She works at the University of KwaZulu-Natal as an interpreter for Deaf students, and as such is frequently asked to interpret for a Deaf student sitting on a class. She also assists the students in editing assignments when she is able to do so. Ms. Mndaba also runs her own interpreting business, through which she receives requests to interpret for the public and private sectors. Her most frequent requests are from companies or government services working with Deaf employees. She works at numerous official government events where communities are invited, as it is a protocol that a SASLI be present to every government event in order to cater to Deaf persons. As contracts can vary greatly in duration and complexity, she also works with different interpreters depending on needs and availabilities.
Since Ms. Mndaba is often hired to interpret in schools, part of her work revolves around the complex task of relaying information to children in a way that is as pedagogical as possible. This involves simplifying her communication, which she finds a particularly daunting task when trying to stay faithful to the message. She sometimes has to enhance comprehension by supporting her intervention with pictures or other visual material.
In her work at the University, Ms. Mndaba's regular work before the pandemic consisted of physically attending class with the Deaf student assigned to her and interpreting during the sessions. However, since the beginning of COVID-19, classes promptly moved online and she began working through Zoom sessions. A seasoned practicioner, she identifies only network instability as a major issue working online. After COVID just as before, South African interpreters normally interpret in pairs if the session is more than 2 hours, taking turns every 20 or 30 minutes. In a lecture room, however, she interprets alone for a complete hour.
COVID-19 has brought many changes to professional and interpersonal communications. The popularity of sign language interpretation, and its increased adaptability and technological availability, could be one of the positive outcomes of this global crisis, giving everyone the benefit of the Deaf community's contributions.
1David McKenzie and Marie-Louise Gumuchian, "Mandela memorial interpreter asks forgiveness, calls himself champion", CNN, Dec. 12, 2013, https://edition.cnn.com/2013/12/12/world/africa/mandela-memorial-fake-intepreter/index.html.
3Francois Deysel, quoted in Alexander Smith, "'Fake' sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela memorial provokes anger", NBC News, Dec. 11, 2013, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/fake-sign-language-interpreter-nelson-mandela-memorial-provokes-anger-flna2D11723934.
4Office des personnes handicapées du Québec
5South African Sign Language Interpreting National Centre
6Willene Holness, "The development and use of Sign Language in South African schools: The denial of inclusive education", The African Disability Rights Yearbook, 2016.