The history of emojis1, the little pictorial icons we all have on our cellphones today, really started in the mid 1990s when Shigetaka Kurita, an employee with Japanese mobile network DoCoMo, invented them. The emoji craze however took off later, when Apple successfully slipped them into the iphone. Using emojis in text messages was seen as a means of adding context, of putting a little emotion, or colour, in otherwise cold, factual messages. In other words 😉, supplying the symbolic with a dash of the imaginary.

The trend picked up fast. It is believed 6 billion emojis are sent out each day. The colourful icons have spread far beyond the boundaries of ordinary texting and touched upon unforeseable cultural levels : Fred Benenson, a data engineer, recently completed an emoji translation of Moby Dick which is generally considered as the pinnacle of American romanticism. And contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing published Une Histoire sans mots (A Story without Words), a complete novel in emoji, in 20132.

Would this mean that emoji has become a universal language thus rendering translation obsolete? Hardly so. For a start, emojis tend to “mistranslate when sent between platforms, or (…) get jumbled if you don’t have the right font. So while a heart may be a heart on your phone, it may end up as a series of glitch squares on Facebook or if you read your email in Chrome”, says Jessica Bennett in the New York Times3. Recent studies have shown, moreover, that there are major cultural differences in the use we make of emojis : the French, it seems, use heart symbols 4 times more than anywhere else in the world ; Americans, are supposedly fond of « gay icons » (😕 : what are those ?) and feminine stereotypes such as stilettos, nail varnish and lipstick. But, much more convincing still, is the recent study by OneHour Translation cited by The Daily Mail ; when translators of different nationalities were given emoji messages to translate, interpretations varied widely and the result was, at times, « hilarious ». When a string of five emojis meaning « New York, the city that never sleeps » was put to the translators, it generated a curious response from Hindi translators of « it’s better to hit the bed instead of poring over world’s mysteries », while Arabic linguists asked « free this evening for a sleepover? » in response4 !

Blaming emojis for their reductive effects on communication as may people do nowadays therefore strikes me as not being the point. It is rather that using imaginary symbols as a means to reduce misunderstanding has, effectively and unsurprisingly, quite the opposite effect. Misunderstanding rules, as ever. 👍

1From the Japanese « e » : picture and « moji » : character…
2Published by Bernard Grasset in Paris.