Emoji Translation Machines Could Be A Real Thing

June 30, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016
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…Or at least it would have been if this Kickstarter campaign had raised its target amount.

The campaign was created by Fred Benenson, the man behind Emoji Dick – another crowd funded project that involved the translation of the entirety of Moby Dick into emoji – a rather daunting prospect. But what can an emoji translator actually do? The answer to that may provide us with the reason Benenson’s Translation Engine project did not raise the required $15,000.

Emoji are being taken seriously

Emoji have been subject to various surveys and statistical analysis over the years and they are increasingly being recognised as a language – or at least as a language supplement or accessory now quite essential to our digital communication.

The Unicode Consortium, the not-for-profit devoted to the standardisation of characters and text in all modern software in the form of the “Unicode Standard”, has encoded emoji, making it possible for them to be shown in the same or similar way across an array of operating systems. This degree of universal recognition in many ways makes emoji a language.

Translation companies, similarly, are acknowledging the trend as an interesting extension in language. According to London Translations, specialists in business translation, ‘what makes Emoji’s different, and what really puts them in the category of a language, is that Emoji is a standardised set of characters available across multiple platforms and operating systems’.

But not everyone agrees. Linguist and author of In The Land Of Invented Languages Arika Okrent told The Washington Post that “Emoji are fun. I like emoji. But they’re not a language — they’re a game of charades.”

Emoji context can easily be lost in translation

Because of to their pop culture nature, emoji are actually not as universal as they seem. They have different meanings to different people, which is where what Okrent says becomes quite true.

Emoji meanings are subject to their users. Some groups of women, for example, use the Strong Arm as a symbol of solidarity and strength, whereas many other groups use it as a sign for masculinity or an ‘air-grab’ of pleasure.

In Japan where emojis originate many emojis have a much more specific meaning than they do in Western cultures, where people are largely ignorant to the nuance of meaning in particular emojis like Japanese Goblin or Tengu.

Even where there is a high degree of consensus on the interpretation of symbols, as there is in language, sophisticated software can still be hugely off the mark when it comes to localisation or translating idioms. The hugely popular Google Translate continues to be a wealth of humorous or simply unintelligible translation errors. As any translation company will attest, translation software always needs people at the helm to localise the language and give it context.

As Emoji are even more minutely contextual than say, regional languages, this problem would become even more pronounced. It seems that investors may have had a similar feeling. As a fun app it might have been nice to have an Emoji engine – but the technology needed to make it even remotely useful would have far exceeded this project’s modest $15,000 budget.