Why there is no “Google Gesture” sign-to-speech translator

Aside from the irresponsible journalism that propagated this story in the first place, the basis for the concept is fundamentally flawed. There cannot be such thing as a wristband a signer can wear that will translate their signed language into spoken language; why? Because signed language is not just on the hands! Signed language is on the face and the body as well. The grammar of signed language is made through eyebrow, mouth, cheek, and even nose movements. Signed language is made with head nods and shakes, head and body tilts, and even shoulder shrugs. Anyone who ever took an introductory course in ASL should know this.

There is one other important flaw in the concept of a gesture-to-speech translation machine, and that is the notion that there is one “sign language.” No, folks, “sign language” is not universal! No sir, no ma’am. Even if Google were able to take input from a human interface device located on a signer’s body–even if that included all the points on the face and body necessary to read signed language–Google would have to add hundreds of signed languages into their Google Translate engine. Language is culture-bound, just as gesture is culture-bound. I’d like to see how this supposed “Google Gesture” would translate the thumbs up gesture, which can mean something like “up yours” in countries other than the United States.

American Sign Language (note that the A in ASL stands for American; i.e., not universal) is a much richer and more complex language than people give it credit for; in fact, so are all the signed languages in the world. Until enough people learn to appreciate the sophistication, complexity, and diversity of signed languages, we will continue to swallow false stories like this hook, line, and sinker.

Do conference interpreters make more than medical interpreters?

I find it interesting to follow the interpreting field in general, not just the ASL-English interpreting field, and the other day I saw a surprising post on a blog I follow called The Professional Interpreter: Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field. The author, Tony Rosado, a Spanish-English interpreter, says that most medical interpreters do not venture from interpreting medical jobs to interpret medical conferences. I don’t think of conference interpreting as more prestigious and profitable than interpreting in medical settings, but things may be very different between signed-spoken and spoken-spoken language interpreters.

Qualified interpreter means an interpreter who … is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.


According to the article, until recently there were no standards for medical interpreting. It is important to note, though, that the author is not talking about interpreting between deaf and non-deaf people; he is talking about interpreting for people who do not share the same spoken language. Interpreters for deaf people are provided as an accommodation mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act and previous laws such as PL 94-142 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Such mandates create a demand for quality; in fact, Title III of the ADA sets the legal definition:

Qualified interpreter means an interpreter who, via a video remote interpreting (VRI) service or an on-site appearance, is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary. Qualified interpreters include, for example, sign language interpreters, oral transliterators, and cued-language transliterators.


I am interested in hearing from interpreters of all language pairs to see what you think about conference interpreting as opposed to medical interpreting. In your experience, have you found conference interpreting to be more profitable than medical interpreting? Do you find that your colleagues and/or consumers respect you more for doing conference interpreting than medical interpreting? Personally, I find both equally rewarding, both personally and financially. It can be stimulating and glamorous to interpret for someone charismatic while facing a large audience, yet it is challenging and rewarding to interpret for a doctor and patient in a private room. I like both settings, and feel respected in both settings. What do you like?

Milestone: 250 downloads of my thesis on vague language so far

Digital Commons tells me my thesis on vague language has been downloaded 250 times as of today. That’s a far cry from the handful of people who read a thesis that’s bound and shelved!

You can read the abstract and get the PDF at no cost: Keeping it vague: A study of vague language in an American Sign Language corpus and implications for interpreting between American Sign Language and English