Marlee Matlin Knew Nelson Mandela Interpreter Was Fake: "I Was Offended"

Thamsanqa Jantjie is accused of making up hand gestures in South Africa earlier this week

By Zach Johnson Dec 13, 2013 12:19 PMTags
Celebrity Apprentice, Marlee MatlinNBC

Marlee Matlin is none too impressed with Thamsanqa Jantjie, the South African sign language interpreter who performed at the Nelson Mandela memorial earlier this week. Jantjie told CNN on Thursday, Dec. 12, that he suffers from schizophrenia, "which is controllable," and stands by his work.

The Switched at Birth actress appeared on the network's Erin Burnett OutFront on Wednesday, Dec. 11. Speaking through a sign language interpreter, the TV star said she was shocked when she realized Jantjie was making up his own signs. "I've been to South Africa before and I can understand some of the South African sign language. But I thought to myself, 'Wait a minute. This isn't anything.' It was almost like he was doing baseball signs. I was appalled. I knew that at any moment, the entire world, whoever was watching, there would be so much noise it would create an explosion. And it did."

Matlin said Jantjie had a "giveaway" that proved he was unqualified to interpret. "Sign language is not international…but in this case each language shares something, which is facial expressions as part of the grammar," she explained. "To see someone standing there without any sort of movement of his body, without any sort of facial expressions that one incorporates into sign, indicates that he has no understanding of the culture, no understanding of the language. I knew exactly right then and there that he wasn't authentic at all. And it was offensive. It was offensive to me."

Jantjie, for his part, is confident in his abilities. "I have never in my life had anything that said I have interpreted wrong," he said Thursday. "It has been many years I have been doing this job. My portfolio shows that I have been a champion of what I have been doing."

Bruno Druchen, the national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, says Jantjie has been dubbed a "fake interpreter"—and for good reason, too. "The deaf community is in outrage. He is not known by the Deaf Community in South Africa nor by the South African Sign Language interpreters working in the field," Druchen said.

As Matlin pointed out, Jantjie showed no facial expressions and his hand signals were meaningless. "It is a total mockery of the language," Druchen said of the interpreter's performance.