At Large

Lost In Translation

Thamsanqa Jantjie was easy to interpret.

By 12.13.13

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Italians talk with their hands. South Africans? Not so much.

“We consider this to be an absolute disgrace and an insult to deaf people,” commented Brit Jan Sheldon of the Royal Association of Deaf People on the stadium-sized tribute to Nelson Mandela. “It represents one of the most public mockeries of deaf people and sign language that we’ve ever seen.”

Translator for the deaf Thamsanqa Jantjie, standing next to the president of the United States at Mandela’s memorial service, treated the international audience to a series chopping gestures and finger flicks. What did it all mean?  

The to-the-letter translation of Jantjie’s punching of the air, for instance, means “ansehjebfibc2u9ygcweodbjcb” in sign language. But must we take everything so literally? One could also interpret the words spoken by Jantjie’s fists as “joeofuhofcnwjhcb” or “uejcnnowdycbg.”

This is gibberish only to parochial people who comprehend their own narrow dialects alone. When asked whether he was pleased with his performance at the memorial, Jantjie responded: “Absolutely.” He pointed out, “I have been a champion of sign language.” Who are we to say otherwise? Isn’t this all just a matter of personal interpretation?

 Language fundamentalists, whether in English or Sign, insist that words possess stable meanings. The fuss over what the signs of Jantjie’s dialect of sign language actually signified extends to wider controversies involving interpretation in literature, politics, advertising, and the law.

Surely the literature professors peopling the annual Modern Language Association meeting know what it’s like to be misunderstood as thoroughly as the beleaguered interpreter for the deaf. When scholars recast the The Great Gatsby’s love triangle as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s thinly-veiled attempt to highlight the suppressed homoeroticism of the male protagonists, or depict the title character of The Taming of the Shrew as a feminist heroine victimized by domestic violence, the audience of skeptics mock them for rewriting literature with a fidelity to their ideological interests instead of the text. But who are we to judge that a women’s studies professor can’t improve upon Shakespeare?   

The 4th amendment to the Constitution speaks of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But the shady penumbra illuminates “a right to privacy,” which naturally establishes a right to an abortion, a right of prisoners to tax-funded sex changes, but not, as some silly people assume, protection against the FBI surreptitiously watching you right now via your laptop’s Skype camera. If you don’t get this, you’re likely to be confused as to the meaning of Jantjie’s body language, too.

More recently, sticklers for precision lambasted the president’s “If you’ve got a health care plan that you like, you can keep it” promise, just as they lambaste his South African sign language interpreter. But any fair-minded translator understood the president’s words to mean: “If you’ve got a health care plan that we like, you can keep it.” Have we become such intolerant absolutists as to condemn a grammatical mix-up over second-person singular and first-person plural as a lie?

Surely Mandela service attendee Bill “depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” Clinton can sympathize with the maligned master sign linguist. So might Madison Avenue’s finest, who depict drinking gallons of Coors Light as resulting in six-pack abs instead of a beer belly and as an aphrodisiac toward the fairer sex instead of a repellant. And so could Jacques Derrida and Harry Blackmun. Quid est veritas?

If all opinions are equally valid, all interpretations deserving of respect, all ideas standing on the same plane, then what explains the universal condemnation of Thamsanqa Jantjie’s unique translation of the words of world leaders? If we can categorically condemn his interpretation as wrong, then logic compels a dismissal of various interpretations of literature, art, legal documents, and much else as humbug, as well. But embracing this absolutist view would prove destructive to relativism, an alarming outcome simply not open to interpretation. So relativism demands condemnation of truth, but nothing else, as categorically false.  

Many readers may uncharitably interpret my meaning here, just as they’ve uncharitably interpreted what Jantjie tried to tell us. The organizers of the global funeral required his center-stage presence not to enable the deaf to understand the eulogists’ words but to make the hearing feel better about themselves. Did he not communicate this vital fact?

So please forgive the harsh hearing-impaired critics of Thamsanqa Jantjie. They were born deaf. Our handicap is that we’ve grown dumb.

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.