Sign language and tragedy in South Africa

Discover the hidden gems of the deaf world, and become knowledgeable about what it is that makes us special.

Sign language impostor 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sign language impostor 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Opening up my Facebook profile this morning, I was met with a long stream of posts from upset, offended and outraged friends.
They all were about the imposter of an interpreter that appeared on the television screen at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in South Africa yesterday, who pretended to translate the weighty words of world leaders into sign language. The problem was that nobody had a clue what form of sign language he professed to be fluent in.
As a deaf person myself, I was also taken aback at the fact that at one of the most significant world events in recent times, a phony interpreter was chosen to represent the deaf community. It is not just that deaf people were left to decipher a mumble- jumble of random signs; it also serves as a message to the deaf community that the world still does not understand us. For if the people responsible for hiring that interpreter would have had a better understanding of sign language and deaf culture, they probably would have seen through his fraud. As it was, almost nobody noticed anything till the South African deaf community expressed its anger.
IMAGINE IF a person who didn’t speak French were to pretend to translate a speech into French. How long do you think it would take before someone – even a person with no knowledge of French – caught on? Perhaps a minute or two. Yet this interpreter was allowed to stand on stage for hours. We did not understand him, because we have yet to be understood.
But I wish you understood us. I wish you would be able to differentiate between an obviously incompetent interpreter and a fluent communicator of sign language. It should not take an angry cry of protest from the deaf community to call your attention to this “clown of an interpreter.”
The sign languages of the deaf community (yes, there is more than one sign language!) are our most precious treasures. It is through the silent voices of our hands that we are heard loud and clear. Thoughts that find awkward expression with our mouths are beautifully expressed with our fingers.
It is difficult for me to describe the beauty of sign language to someone who has yet to appreciate it; it is equal to the challenge of describing the taste of chocolate. Let me suffice with the words of the legendary deaf leader of the early 20th century, George Veditz: “[O]ur beautiful sign language [is] the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”
I have been part of the deaf community for decades now, and when I take a look at our leaders, I am proud. They are the people who have expanded the horizons of the deaf community into farther realms. Their hard work and progress has made all the difference for the deaf community.
Every step forward they make proves to the rest of us that it too is possible for us.
Within the Jewish deaf community, I have also seen the amount of work invested in building a home for Jewish deaf souls. Since the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t provide that home, we have to create it ourselves. And create we have. A national Jewish deaf organization was founded, in addition to many other organizations, programs and initiatives, all of which have worked in tandem to provide Jewish experiences for deaf individuals for years now.
Working as a rabbi, I am humbled to be able to contribute to this effort.
BUT IF you don’t know anything about deaf people, you have been missing out on all this. You have been clueless to the beauty of our community and language. Our admired leaders and their successes are unknown to you. Our rich history and culture are all Greek to you. I’m so honored to be a proud member of this community, but I also feel bad for you.
That’s why I think the greatest tragedy of yesterday’s interpreting fiasco was not that deaf people got a lousy interpreter. It’s that the world still does not understand us. It is more your tragedy than ours.
Luckily, it’s easily rectifiable. Just start learning today. Discover the hidden gems of the deaf world, and become knowledgeable about what it is that makes us special. Learn what sign language really is all about. Be sensitive to the deaf experience.
In other words, understand us.
The author is a deaf rabbi in New York City, and has worked with the Jewish deaf community for years. I run a website for the Jewish deaf community called Jewish deaf multimedia (