Fact: Fraudsters love limelight – good interpreters don’t

Taking the stage for a Karaoke solo and clearing the dance floor with my dad moves to Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody are frolics that I have succumbed to during the festive season, much to the amusement of my daughters and friends.

I’ve never been under any illusion that I present any threat to Michael Buble or Noddy Holder and, like most people, my preference is to move quietly into the wings and forget the episode ever happened.

When your profession puts you in the limelight, however, an embarrassing performance can have devastating consequences; not only for your career but the credibility of those who permitted you to take to the stage. Enter stage right, Mr Thamsanqa Jantjie, the man local media has named as the sign language interpreter who entered the history books this week during the memorial to the great Nelson Mandela. His version of signing would have trumped any mass audience spoof by Sacha Baron Cohen, were it not so tragically inappropriate.

Mr Jantjie, who claimed to have suffered from a schizophrenic episode, may be forgiven and who knows, may even help us to learn something from this unfortunate case, even if only that signing is a priceless talent that spans the globe. There is less sympathy for other “fake” professionals like Wall Street Reeper Bernie Madoff, who enjoyed the warm glow of the spotlight while all the time knowing his fan club were all on the suckers” A-list.

Money, status and the spiral of deceit may all be incentives for the Charles Ponzi wannabe set but it omits one indispensable ingredient in the cocktail that intoxicates corrupt people – vanity. Is pride more addictive than wealth – or perceived riches in the case of the fraudster? I believe it is. Eye’s right! Look who’s on parade, it’s Roger Day, the man whose glamorous and impossible array of military gongs were enough to make the late President Idi Amin Dada look distinctly under dressed when he appeared on a Remembrance parade in 2009.

The international sign language community; duped investors; regulators and affronted military veterans are all justified in calling for action to keep the conmen off stage and leave the comedy to the professionals. But we all have a vital role to play in this reality show which can hurt audiences. I’ve spent much of my working life trying to protect citizens from those who cheat, hurt and steal and have been blessed to be accompanied on the journey by some of the most honourable, caring and talented people on earth. Working closely with these enigmatic yet polar opposites revealed a simple characteristic that exposes the bluffer: disclosing achievements.

The talented sign language expert, like other talented translators and interpreters, knows that their duty is to serve the customer and that the clarity and accuracy of the message they convey is the star of the show, not them. Indeed, the experienced linguist has mastered the skill of camouflage; their art being superior to their image. These are values the professional interpreter shares with the physician, nurse, lawyer and soldier – all of whom are proud of their credentials and not in love with their own, supposed achievements.

This is a simple notion but as Ponzi, Madoff, Day and now Jantjie illustrate, it is far easier to pose as a modest yet true hero than to be one. When speaking with victims who have been duped by fake heroes, I sense many had an innate desire to see good in others that made them feel it was impolite to ask questions about the person’s background and qualifications. This politeness is not reserved to the British and may have gently ushered its way into other societies, in which case we can expect to see more bogus experts appearing on stage in the years ahead.

Protecting the modesty of the good whilst exposing the fake hero is going to be like Van Helsing hunting for Dracula at a White Tie Ball but there are proven steps we can all take to distinguish friend from foe and ensure we know who we are dealing with. It’s not only regulated professions that need to know their customer; the prudent business owner, investor and potential employer will carry out basic vetting. The internet provides us with the greatest open source of information ever known to man and thanks to LinkedIn and other social media platforms, we can discover more about our would-be associate than George Orwell could have ever envisaged.

The unstoppable growth of online data presents many challenges but it also provides a tremendous opportunity to stop fraudsters enjoying the limelight. However, I doubt very much that it will keep me and other dad’s away from the dance floor at the Christmas party.

Today Translations is an award-winning translation company that has provided companies, governmental organisations and individuals with professional and fully-certified translation and interpreting services over the last 10+ years. David Clarke is a former police Detective Chief Superintendent and a trustee of the Fraud Advisory Panel. He is an Advisory Board member at Today Translations, with responsibilities including translation security assurance, multilingual risk management, vetting, and cultural intelligence.