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Translating Emoji

Do you ever use Emoji in business communications? Come on, admit it 🙂

If you do, don’t worry, you are not alone.

Being in the language translation business, we keep our finger firmly on the pulse of developments in language across the world.

Language evolves so following modern trends and keeping up with the changes in common usage enables us to continually provide the very best translation service available.

So it’s no surprise that the announcement that Emoji is the fastest growing language in the world, with the heart Emoji for love claiming ‘word of the year’ by the Global Language Monitor.

Now, while we’re not expecting an influx of requests to translate Emoji, it’s interesting to see how forms of communication grow and change the way we connect with each other.

Emoji, which literally translates to picture” (e) + “character” (moji) first appeared in Japan back in 1998 as an addition to the i-mode mobile Internet platform.

From there, Google and Apple saw the advantage and popularity of Emoji and pushed to have more characters encoded into the Unicode standard.

What started off as a mere 172 basic characters has now grown into a huge set of 772 standard Emoji characters, plus a section of 209 flags.

As their popularity soars, so do the number of updates.

Quite often, Emoji are mistakenly referred to as ‘smileys’ or ’emoticons’, both of which have been around on instant messaging, e-mail and mobile platforms for some time.

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. While the artwork for each Emoji varies by platform, the meaning of each symbol remains the same.

In response to the burgeoning adaptation of Emoji much has been made across the media lamenting the impending collapse of language and the dumbing down of society.

While it’s a nice angle for a story, the demise of language and literature is unlikely to be imminent. Emoji are actually from a long tradition in human communication of ideograms or logograms.

There is a distinction between the two; ideograms represent ideas, whereas logograms represent words – Emoji falls heavier on the ideogram side of the spectrum but also incorporates many logograms.

From the earliest evidence of humankind leaving their mark in the Chauvet Cave in France to nearly every road sign and warning sign, the use of graphic symbols to communicate is firmly entrenched in us.

The Internet’s global community is the ideal place for ideograms to flourish, providing an easy way to communicate simple ideas and emotions quickly while breaking through any language barrier.

In the world of online communication, Emoji has solved the difficulty in expressing intonation and has augmented textual communication. Rather than a language, Emoji are just another subtle evolution in the way we choose to communicate, partly driven by the desire to reach across different languages but mostly about efficiency.

Interestingly, the very thing that has helped Emoji become so popular may well be what stunts its growth.

The need to standardise the graphics to allow global access means that the release of additional characters is heavily controlled, so the system will always be playing catch up to a certain extent.

Emoji in the workplace

There’s no doubt that Emoji are here to stay, they have transformed online communication and a recent survey found that 78% of UK teenagers said they found it easier to express their emotions through the use of Emoji characters rather than text.

Certainly, teenagers as a group have traditionally never been particularly adept at expressing their emotions so it’s no surprise at their delight at a system that conveys a generic emotion, circumventing the need for any true depth or specifics.

Since London Translations was formed in 2003 we’ve seen a marked change in the level of formality used in Business to Business communications.

We notice when translating emails, people nowadays often use happy and sad faces to augment standard punctuation. It’s almost as if a new graphical ‘meta punctuation’ has evolved which is actually quite useful – even though your English teacher would doubtless hate it.

There are some subtle dangers however when communicating with people from different cultures who might be – how can we put this delicately – ‘a little more senior in years‘ and are perhaps not fully versed in the new language.

For instance, in western cultures a big smile can mean nothing else but happiness, joy and friendliness.

However in some eastern cultures, emotion is primarily expressed through the eyes and a smile can been seen as mocking or even hostile!

And then there’s the colour.

Yellow, the standard colour for many Emoji, is not received well in some Arabic cultures were it is synonymous with cowardice and dishonesty (For more on cultural considerations when translating brands see our free Validata report on avoiding international brand disasters).

As more and more people from ‘Generation Z’ join the workforce we expect to see the use of Emoji grow; who knows CEOs of the future may annotate their annual reports with a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Only time will tell.

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