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Footnotes on Mandela memorial ‘interpreter’

There are a couple of footnotes to this week’s story about the purported sign language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela memorial in South Africa, who by all accounts was rendering speeches from VIPs into something that was not any recognized sign language.

First, my Washington Post colleague Steven Mufson reported Thursday from South Africa that the man was identified in the Johannesburg Star as Thamsanqa Jantjie and that he said he was suffering from schizophrenia and hearing voices during the Tuesday event.

Second, the incident brought rare attention to a corner of academia thriving at Gallaudet University in Washington. There, at the premier university for the deaf and hard of hearing, the department of interpretation occupies a unique niche. Melanie Metzger, professor and chair of the department, said Gallaudet is the only university in the world to offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in sign language interpretation.

Metzger and many others were appalled at what happened onstage in South Africa as the life of the late anti-apartheid leader was being celebrated, while a man stood and waved his arms and hands in meaningless fashion. It was an affront to the world’s deaf community, they said.

“This situation is really a fiasco,” Metzger said, “and highlights the need for educated, professional interpreters.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.

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