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A matter of interpretation

In the case of the bogus Mandela signer, no one should confuse mental illness with foolishness

By Carolyn Pogue

He said that he saw the stadium full of angels. I believe him. How could there not have been hundreds and thousands of angels attending the memorial for Nelson Mandela? I was so focused on listening to words and seeing what the camera showed me that I missed the angels entirely. I am grateful that Thamsanqa Jantjie told us about them.

The controversy surrounding this interpreter for the deaf has been swirling around in my heart and mind these weeks. I watched him stand beside all of the dignitaries in the first part of the event, and certainly was drawn to study him. His movements were dramatic and, at times, graceful, like a ballet of the hands. His face reflected seriousness and passion for his work. And then, suddenly, the camera almost cut him out of the picture. You knew he was still there but not taking up as much screen time as before. The next day, the media declared him a fake. Some members of  the deaf community were angry. (I’d be angry too, if I’d reported him as a fake and then kept seeing him show up at events.)

But there’s another side, I think. I speak with the authority of a mother who watched helplessly as my son descended into the hell of schizophrenia, dying as a result of it 22 years ago. If it is true that Jantjie also has this illness, as he stated in the media, it would likely explain some things about his personal history. But it may also account for the day he offered his interpretation of the words of world leaders, too.

For example, no one should confuse mental illness with stupidity. One would have to be very determined and very clever to get through all the red tape and security that he did. One can be in good physical shape and still have a mental illness. His enthusiastic interpreting was hours long; in fact, he stood there longer than anyone else. People with various mental illnesses can be lucid and reach their goals. One would have to be very clear about being in the centre of things when the world focussed on Nelson Mandela. Jantjie accomplished something quite remarkable in what he did. His action may have shamed the South African government (which was already embarrassed by the booing of their president), but I don’t believe he meant harm to anyone.

A friend, who is deaf, told her mom that she and her boyfriend laughed and laughed when they saw the interpreter. “He looked like he was conducting an orchestra!” she said merrily. The Globe and Mail editorial cartoonist hilariously depicted Stephen Harper hiring the interpreter to explain the Senate scandal. (It would make as much sense as what has been offered by the Canadian government.) In contrast to some of the antics pulled off by some politicians, leaders, bank managers and greedy CEOs, this doesn't seem like a big tragedy.

Of course, I hope that Jantjie receives the kindest and best psychological care that he needs and deserves. I hope he is not made to feel badly. I hope that his family and loved ones surround him with the support he needs.

Although no one understood his interpretation at Mandela's memorial, he claimed that he had seen the stadium full of angels in an interview that followed. Maybe that was the real message we needed to receive.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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