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Sign language interpreter at Mandela memorial called a ‘fake’

President Barack Obama looks down as he stands next to the sign language interpreter as he makes his speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. South Africa's deaf federation said on Wednesday that the interpreter on stage for Mandela memorial was a 'fake', (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

A man who appeared to provide sign language interpretation on stage for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, attended by scores of heads of state, was a “fake,” the national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa said on Wednesday.

If you were watching the ceremony live on television, you saw a man performing sign language in a manner that made him appear to be a rock star – with animated, exaggerated movements.

President Barack Obama was extolling the virtues of Mandela’s life while the man interpreted next to him, “Your dignity and your hope found expression in his life and your freedom and democracy is his cherished legacy.”

And the sign language interpreter was faking it. He was making signs that no one who is deaf could understand because they weren’t real. On Twitter, the deaf community called him a “charlatan.”

“The signals, or the signs that he had used, are not signs used in the deaf community in South Africa, nor in the world,” explained South African Sign Language interpreter Francois Deysel.

Deysel told the BBC World Service that the man made a mockery of the profession. “He has never been a part of any training program of any sort in South Africa. He’s also not been used by any deaf organization in South Africa.”

Collins Chabane, one of South Africa’s two presidency ministers, said the government is investigating the matter but has not finished yet because it has been overwhelmed with work preparing for Mandela’s funeral Sunday in his hometown of Qunu.

Bogus sign language interpreters are a problem in South Africa, because people who know a few signs try to pass themselves off as interpreters, said Ingrid Parkin, principal of the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg. And those hiring them usually don’t sign, so they have no idea that the people they are hiring cannot do the job, she said.

“They advertise themselves as interpreters because they know 10 signs and they can make some quick money,” said Parkin. “It is plain and simple abuse of the deaf community, they are taking advantage of the deaf community to make money.”

Members of the deaf community around the world say the interpretation during the president’s speech was “humiliating.” Parking said she received complaints from the deaf community from Canada to China about the man on stage and that his movements look “like he’s signing gibberish.” He also used no facial expression to convey the emotions of the leaders, a key element of sign language interpretation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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