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

Don’t let Internet video bulldogs bulldoze closed-captioning in the name of progress

President Barack Obama congratulating legislat...
President Barack Obama congratulating legislators and Stevie Wonder (Photo credit: theqspeaks)
Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shap...
Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro introduces former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney (R) at CEA HQ in Arlington, VA. 5/28/2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t let the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and Entertainment Software Association (ESA) persuade the FCC to exempt them from closed-captioning Internet video. Read the article below and click the links to read the actual petition; then, write to the FCC to uphold the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) that President Obama signed into law.

Trade groups hunt for online-video exemptions from disability-access rules – FierceOnlineVideo.

Related articles


Participated in an ASL Hangout On Air, discussed how to have better signed language videoconferences

Google Inc, 谷歌美国总部
Google Inc, 谷歌美国总部 (Photo credit: Yang and Yun’s Album)

Naomi Black at Google headquarters invited Willie King, Jared Evans, Ben Rubin, Richard Goodrowme, (and maybe others who couldn’t make it) to a Hangout On Air so she should show JAC Cook how Google’s videoconferencing technology works. We talked about some of the plusses (no pun intended) and minuses of Google+ HOA’s (Hangouts On Air, not Homeowners’ Associations). On the plus side, you have an attractive service and you don’t have to deal with firewalls; on the minus side, it is hard to have group talks in ASL when only one signer is in a big pane and all the others are in “thumbnails” in the “filmstrip” along the bottom of the screen. We discussed ways of moderating multi-signer videoconferences, such as having people hold up their hands when they want to talk and waiting to be called upon. Naomi reminded us you can select the thumbnail of the person you want to watch in the big pane, and a few of us recommended doing away with the screen-and-filmstrip layout and going to a more equally-sized multi-pane layout (or one where you can control the size of panes). Jared Evans & Willie King work at ZVRS and they said they would like to give Google some tips on more effective multi-point videoconferencing for signed language users.

The Brady Bunch opening grid, season one
The Brady Bunch opening grid, season one (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am glad that Google keeps seeking the opinions of the signing communities; I just hope they are willing to change the layout of Hangouts to a “Brady Bunch” grid format– or at least offer it as an alternate layout.

How about you? Does the current implementation of Google+ Hangouts work for you, or would you like to see changes made? Please leave your thoughts in comments below and/or send your feedback to Google! 🙂

Crowdsourcing to closed-caption videos with Amara

pictograms used by the United States National ...
pictograms used by the United States National Park Service. A package containing all NPS symbols is available at the Open Icon Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday’s Hangout On Air on American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf culture is now a video on YouTube, and that video is being crowdsourced for subtitles at Amara. If you’ve never heard of Amara (I hadn’t until yesterday), it is a website dedicated to crowdsourcing the captioning of videos. How it works is that anyone can embed a video on Amara, and anyone can caption it on a volunteer basis. Captioning is very time-consuming. It involves both transcription, line division, and time coding. The average rate of speech is somewhere around 5 syllables per second (Kendall, 2009, p. 145). You have to listen to a few seconds of a video, pause the video, type what you just heard, and repeat the process. The transcription has to be time-coded; i.e., the words have to be matched with the time they appear on the video, usually at about 32 characters per line[1], so that’s time-consuming too. For these reasons, when it comes to help with closed-captioning, the more the merrier, especially because so many people make videos pro bono. This video is over 48 minutes, and of course it’s pro bono. If you would like to closed-caption a few lines of the video on Amara, please do. A little work by a lot of people will get the job done.


1. I don’t like to repeat statistics without sources, but 32 and 35 characters appeared often on webpages. Screen Subtitling’s white paper “Closed caption subtitling” [PDF] said “the number of characters per line or row is a set limitation” (Screen, 2008, p. 2) with no specification of the limit or reference to the authority. I searched the Internet for the “set limitation” on characters per line, and I found the same numbers repeated in different places with no traceable references. AutoCaption.com’s “Closed captioning defined” page said, “the features of traditional captioning are: … 32 characters per line” with no citation. Welstech wiki said the Department of Education required 35 characters per line, yet when I searched the US Department of Education website, I could find no such specification. CPC.com’s Closed Captioning FAQ answered the question, “What features are supported by CEA-608 closed captions for standard definition?” thus: ” […] A caption block can have up to 4 lines and up to 32 characters per line, although for accessibility reasons, it is recommended not to exceed 2 lines and 26 characters per line […].” I searched “CEA-608” to find the source, and I found the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) CEA-608-E Standard Details page. Unfortunately, the standards are published in a printed book that costs $300, $225 for members. Can anyone quote the source of authority? If so, please leave a comment.


Kendall, Tyler S. (2009). Speech rate, pause, and linguistic variation: An examination through the sociolinguistic archive and analysis project (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://ncslaap.lib.ncsu.edu/kendall/kendall-dissertation-final.pdf.

Screen.  (July 2008). Closed caption subtitling. Retrieved from  http://www.screen.subtitling.com/downloads/Closed%20Caption%20subtitling.pdf