AIIC statement on the quality of language interpretation at major events

The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) wishes to share the dismay of the Deaf community with regard to the quality of the sign language interpreting services provided at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on 10th December in Johannesburg.

As a rule, everyone has the right to be able to participate in political, public, social and cultural life, including persons with disabilities – see articles 21, 29 and 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). In such circumstances, event organisers, public or private, and the media have a duty to ensure that the interpreting services they provide offer the necessary quality to allow everyone access to information in their own language.

Quality interpretation at events such as this means that at least two interpreters should be engaged in order to be able to relay each other over several hours of work. The sound quality must be good enough for the interpreters to hear what is being said: in a noisy stadium this would have been all but impossible and the interpreter would have needed earphones with direct sound input.

AIIC wishes to underscore the importance of having qualified and fully fledged interpreters to meet the needs of all people in order for them to be able to communicate and participate. Thus it also wishes to raise awareness of the need to develop professional interpreter training in every country. Training and certification should be through properly accredited establishments and not via suppliers who are unable to carry out the necessary evaluation of the interpreters they supply.

AIIC aims to advance the profession through research, training and further training, outreach and advocacy. Its members offer professional services at all times.

Since 2009, it has included sign languages in the list of working languages of its members. The AIIC Sign Language Network (SLN) provides the interface between spoken language interpreting and sign language interpreting. It also serves as a contact point between AIIC and the various national and international sign language interpreters associations.

AIIC and AIIC Sign Language Network

UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: (South Africa signed and ratified in 2007)

Article 21 - Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice, as defined in article 2 of the present Convention, including by:

a) Providing information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost;

b) Accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages, Braille, augmentative and alternative communication, and all other accessible means, modes and formats of communication of their choice by persons with disabilities in official interactions;

c) Urging private entities that provide services to the general public, including through the Internet, to provide information and services in accessible and usable formats for persons with disabilities;

d) Encouraging the mass media, including providers of information through the Internet, to make their services accessible to persons with disabilities;

e) Recognizing and promoting the use of sign languages.

Article 29 - Participation in political and public life

States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others, and shall undertake:

a) To ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected, inter alia, by:

  1. Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use;
  2. Protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums without intimidation, and to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate;
  3. Guaranteeing the free expression of the will of persons with disabilities as electors and to this end, where necessary, at their request, allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice;

b) To promote actively an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs, without discrimination and on an equal basis with others, and encourage their participation in public affairs, including:

  1. Participation in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country, and in the activities and administration of political parties;
  2. Forming and joining organizations of persons with disabilities to represent persons with disabilities at international, national, regional and local levels.

Article 30 - Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport

1. States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to take part on an equal basis with others in cultural life, and shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities:

a) Enjoy access to cultural materials in accessible formats;

b) Enjoy access to television programmes, films, theatre and other cultural activities, in accessible formats;

c) Enjoy access to places for cultural performances or services, such as theatres, museums, cinemas, libraries and tourism services, and, as far as possible, enjoy access to monuments and sites of national cultural importance.

2. States Parties shall take appropriate measures to enable persons with disabilities to have the opportunity to develop and utilize their creative, artistic and intellectual potential, not only for their own benefit, but also for the enrichment of society.

3. States Parties shall take all appropriate steps, in accordance with international law, to ensure that laws protecting intellectual property rights do not constitute an unreasonable or discriminatory barrier to access by persons with disabilities to cultural materials.

4. Persons with disabilities shall be entitled, on an equal basis with others, to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture.

5. With a view to enabling persons with disabilities to participate on an equal basis with others in recreational, leisure and sporting activities, States Parties shall take appropriate measures:

a) To encourage and promote the participation, to the fullest extent possible, of persons with disabilities in mainstream sporting activities at all levels;

b) To ensure that persons with disabilities have an opportunity to organize, develop and participate in disability-specific sporting and recreational activities and, to this end, encourage the provision, on an equal basis with others, of appropriate instruction, training and resources;

c) To ensure that persons with disabilities have access to sporting, recreational and tourism venues;

d) To ensure that children with disabilities have equal access with other children to participation in play, recreation and leisure and sporting activities, including those activities in the school system;

Recommended citation format:
Sign Language Network. "AIIC statement on the quality of language interpretation at major events". December 13, 2013. Accessed July 9, 2020. <>.

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I would like to add my dismay about this incident and fully endorse the AIIC statement and comments by Jean-Pierre Allain. As a South African and conference interpreter I am particularly affected by this incident and the coverage it has received world wide, and quite rightly so. Although the organizers of the memorial service should have undertaken all measures to ensure that the recruited interpreter was qualified for this high-level event, apart from the fact that one interpreter could never perform up-to-standard alone, the press coverage this botched interpretation has received should only serve to underscore the principles outlined in the statement and comments posted on and all the values AIIC upholds and defends. Susan Fergusson Former Vice-President of AIIC Former Consultant Interpreter

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Jean-Pierre ALLAIN


I was hoping that my association AIIC would come out with a statement on this unfortunate case of botched interpretation. Unfortunately, it is not isolated. There are quite often situations in which interpretation is provided by non-professionals. The main reason for this is recruitment of interpreters through agencies. Many of these (not all) are not at all qualified to assess, and even less to train, interpreters - whether they be liaison interpreters or conference interpreters. The purpose of agencies is to make a profit, and usually they charge far more than they pay their interpreters or rather non-interpreters. They often provide translators, teachers or simply people who know more than one language, but who have no qualifications nor training to perform simultaneous or consecutive interpretation. It is, after all, an extremely difficult and demanding skill which needs to be learned at qualified university-level institution. AIIC has a list of the accredited conference interpretation university-level courses. The way to avoid such unfortunate situations is to recruit qualified interpreters through the intermediary of consultant interpreters. These are themselves professional conference interpreters who know other professional interpreters - notably members of AIIC - and have the necessary skills to compose teams of interpreters and provide clients with a decent service. There are a few agencies that do have the skills and the ethical standards to provide a professional recruitment service. If you need interpreters, consult AIIC. Our website lists professional consultant interpreters and we are always willing to offer advice on how and where to find interpreters, including sign language interpreters. Jean-Pierre Allain former President of AIIC Consultant Interpreter

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