Nightly News   |  January 01, 1910

Sign language interpreter made ‘no sense’ at Mandela memorial

It was a moment in history, lost in translation – as an interpreter for the deaf at Nelson Mandela’s memorial used gestures that some are calling fake. NBC’s Ron Allen reports.

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>>> tonight, thousands of south africans are lining up to view nelson mandela 's flag-draped casket as he lies in state in pretoria, inside the same ampitheatre where he was sworn in as president almost 20 years ago. there will be two more days of public viewings before mandela is laid to rest on sunday.

>>> and in south africa tonight, controversy over a man who stood next to president obama at the memorial, the sign language interpreter. some in the deaf community say he's a fake whose gestures we s weren't sign language at all. ron allen reports from south africa .

>> mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit .

>> reporter: he was there even when president obama spoke. today, outrage from deaf and hearing impaired south africans who say the so-called interpreter was a complete fraud.

>> i couldn't bear to watch what he would create out of it. so it's 0% accuracy really.

>> reporter: she said the only legitimate sign she saw, ironically, was for the word "help." on television which uses its own interpreter for the deaf, the difference was apparent. angry viewers pounced on twitter. "please get rid of this crown interpreter." he is making up the signs. no idea how he got the job. the man at the center of it all is not talking tonight. he's been used as an interpreter before, including last year with south african president jay zuma. professionals who reviewed his work say he's not communicating known sign language . the government which presumably hired him for the service is looking into the matter but has been busy dealing with arrangements for the funeral.

>> reporter: today the white house weighed in.

>> it would be a shame if a distraction about an individual on stage in any way detracted from the importance of that event and the importance of president mandela 's legacy.

>> reporter: we asked david buckston for his interpretation.

>> he is making it up. there is no sense to what he's doing. i can't see any meaning to what he's doing.

>> reporter: a moment in history, lost in translation with the whole world watching. ron allen , nbc news, pretoria.

>> one more note on the president's trip to south africa .