Pizza And Bear Monsters: Bizzare Tales Of Fake Sign Language Interpreters

Though automated closed captioning systems have done a lot to increase accessibility for deaf individuals, one occupation is still essential: sign language interpreters. These professionals, who can work one-on-one with clients or translate for large crowds, are key to ensuring deaf people are included in events. But sometimes they can harm more than they help.

It might sound baffling, but multiple high-profile sign language interpreters have gotten called out in the past for faking their skills. These interpreters either never spoke sign language in the first place or decided to translate something totally different than what they were hearing. This kind of con can be seriously dangerous — especially when translators are supposed to convey important messages about health and safety.

From a comedian in Ireland to a bogus interpreter in South Africa, here are some of the most egregious examples of sign language interpreters who were faking their skills.

The fake interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial

In possibly the most famous example of a fake interpreter, one man who pretended to have signing fluency was booked by the South African government to serve as an interpreter at famous activist and politician Nelson Mandela's memorial service in 2013, according to NPR. The service, which featured speeches by several major political leaders, including then-U.S. President Barack Obama, was broadcast around the world, leading deaf people from all over to notice the bizarre, nonsensical signing, per NBC News.

This wasn't the interpreter's first go-round: He had been hired for African National Congress events in the past, according to The Guardian, and NBC News reports that he'd provided translations for the South African president before as well. Paul Breckell, the chief of Action on Hearing Loss, a U.K. charity, told NBC News at the time that he was "shocked" by the disastrous translation. "Deaf or hard of hearing people across the world were completely excluded from one of the biggest events in recent history," he said.

The South African government said after the incident that they had opened an inquiry into what had happened and who was at fault.

Signing about bear monsters at a Hurricane Irma briefing

When deaf residents of Manatee County in Florida tried to watch a briefing about Hurricane Irma in 2017, they didn't find a qualified interpreter on their TV screens (via The New York Times). Instead, Manatee County officials, under a time crunch and trying to get info out as fast as possible, used a local lifeguard to translate their message.

The lifeguard, named Marshall Greene, was less than perfect in his translations. Among the phrases he signed included the seemingly random "pizza" and "bear monster."

Greene was chosen for the role because he had a deaf brother and spoke some sign language, according to The New York Times. Still, Manatee County didn't correct their error as quickly as one might hope. Greene was used twice in a single day — though eventually, after a backlash from deaf residents in the area, some of whom reported having to turn to relatives for information on the impending hurricane, they decided to hire a more experienced interpreter, according to The New York Times. Some local interpreters have expressed frustration that they weren't asked to step in more quickly, per WPTV.

A con woman at a Florida press conference

Florida has had more than one issue with faux interpreters. In 2017, during a press conference about an alleged serial killer, a fake sign language interpreter was used to translate the broadcast. The woman, Derlyn Roberts, apparently walked onto the scene and told officers she was there to provide services for the hard of hearing, according to ABC13. She was not hired for the press conference, but the cops didn't question her qualifications, and she was allowed on-screen.

Her translation was largely nonsensical, the Tampa Bay Times reported (via ABC13). Some deaf people even said that it looked like she was singing "Jingle Bells." A mother of one of the serial killer's victims is deaf, according to ABC Action News. She was not able to understand the press conference because of the bogus signer.

Roberts, who was later identified as having multiple prior convictions including a conviction for fraud (per the Miami Herald), wasn't arrested for her fake signing. Pretending to speak sign language isn't technically illegal, and Roberts never misidentified her qualifications, since Florida is a state that doesn't require sign language interpreters to have any particular certifications, per ABC13.

Gibberish at a South African government event

One big reason people fake their qualifications: It's easy to get away with it. At least, that's what one deaf activist in South Africa says. The country has had multiple fake-signer scams, including one bogus interpreter who, years after the high-profile Nelson Mandela con, went viral in a video that showed him making a nonsensical series of motions as he pretended to translate the words of police minister Bheki Cele (pictured) at a government event (via Newzroom Afrika). Instead of translating the minister's comments about Jerusalem, he instead repeatedly signed the letter "J," confusing deaf viewers who completely missed the content of the speech.

Ntombi Sikuza, an activist interviewed by Newzroom Afrika, said that the incident was proof that the South African government hadn't improved their hiring policies for interpreters since the issues at Nelson Mandela's memorial. She suggested that making South African Sign Language an official language of the country could help to validate its existence as a real language and prevent con artists from faking their status as translators.

An Irish comedian makes a bad joke at a Brexit conference

Sign language interpretation can also be used as a joke or parody — though deaf activist groups often object to this. In one instance, an Irish comedian decided to make fun of a local politician when he crashed an event to discuss Brexit, according to Irish Central. Ross Browne got up in the middle of a speech by Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny (pictured) and started pretending to interpret what the politician was saying, but it became obvious to audiences that Browne was not a real interpreter when he started making a series of lewd gestures, including making makeshift signs for certain swears and even flipping the politician off. Browne was escorted from the room, but not until after he had already made quite the scene.

After the event, deaf activists and advocacy groups criticized the stunt, according to The Irish Times, saying that, while they understood the intended joke, the gag was an insult to genuine interpreters and deaf or hard of hearing individuals who use sign language. For his part, Browne said he never intended any offense, according to The Independent.