When the leading Belgian newspaper De Morgen, which styles itself as progressive, published an image of Obama and his wife as chimps and passed it off as satire, they did not expect a backlash. They assumed that their readers would laugh and move on, and it would be business as usual. This assumption was rooted in two facts.
A few days ago, when the story of the “fake interpreter” broke in the South African media, the ANC denied any knowledge of who he was and how he got to be on the podium, signing while world leader after world leader gave inane speeches intended to tell the world that “Yes, I more than anyone, I was close to Madiba; we had dinner together once, and he paid special attention to me. Furthermore, his saintliness is the reason why I, too, should be close to the same beatification treatment.” (Yes, Drone President, I’m looking at you.) That would have been a tough job for any veteran of sign language, who must not only convey the words, but also the emotional impact and context through a mixture of physical movements and psychological engagement with both speaker and audience. It is translation—and like translation between any two languages, it has all the attendant complexities of signs never adequately meeting the requirements of the signifier—but with an added layer of physicality essential to convey the speaker’s intended tone.
Today, at 11am Norwegian local time, we’ll know who’s won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize–an award known for its growing irrelevance. Everyone predicts the winner will be Malala Yousafzai. It’s worth going through some of the dodgiest choices made by the Nobel committee in the 93 times they’ve awarded the prize since 1901.