Worth a Thousand Words: Emoji in Translation
When there are no words, say it with pictures. That’s the idea behind emoji, the little cartoon pictures that appear in our texts and tweets. People of all ages and cultures use emoji, and as a result, emoji are increasingly becoming a way for brands and organizations to form an emotional connection with their audiences. As a non-verbal language feature, they can add emotional value to your translated content.
While they used to be considered a playful addition to casual communication, emoji are now recognized as an important form of communication. Although they’re not a language on their own, emoji add layers of emotional nuance to sometimes flat textual communications. They can help clear up the tone of a sentence with multiple interpretations. We know that only a fraction of communication is verbal; much of what we actually mean to say is nonverbal or gestural. Emoji help us demonstrate gestures or facial expressions that we can’t communicate through text. For example, now that emoji have been in use for a few years, researchers have noticed that the part of our brain that responds to human faces now responds to emoji.
So how can emoji help you translate and localize your content?
Emoji use can have a number of benefits for your content, primarily by helping you form region-specific emotional connections with your audience. More and more, consumers across the board want to interact with brands and organizations that show high emotional intelligence, and seem willing to personally connect with their customers. A 2016 study in the UK found that people who use emoji tend to be more self-aware, emotionally flexible, and agreeable. So if your content has casual outlets, emoji can be one way to demonstrate your EQ. Depending on the type of content you’re creating, emoji can enable you to build connections with and relate to a group of consumers.
On the other hand, facial expressions and gestures aren’t universal, and the emoji that represent them have similar problems. If you plan to use emoji in your content, you may want to consider these translation/localization pitfalls.
Emojis’ meanings are standard in Unicode, but how they are drawn is up to each operating system’s programmers. So a grinning face on a Google phone may be interpreted as a grimace on an Apple device, leading to some confusion about the emotional register of the message. A recent study found that nearly 25% of facial emoji have widely different interpretations across US-based platforms. When shifting your content to an operating system in another country, these variations may increase even more, leading to misinterpretation of some facial emoji.
Similarly, expressions and gestures might not mean the same thing in every culture. In order to localize your content and not accidentally give offense, you may need to consider that certain facial expressions and gestures have different emotional registers across cultures. For example, pointing with the index finger–a very common American gesture– is considered very rude in China, Japan, and Latin American countries. So you’d want to avoid using the pointing emoji in content targeted at those countries.
The variation of emoji use by country can have positive effects on your content as well. Every country and culture has a slightly different set of preferred emoji, and knowing these favorite emoji can help you effectively localize your content. For example, a 2016 Swiftkey study revealed that French speakers use the most heart emojis (nearly 55% of all emojis sent in French are hearts, compared with the international average of 13%), whereas Arabic speakers love to use plants and flowers in their texts. (Canadians love to text each other the “smiling poop” emoji, but we don’t recommend including this in your content.)
Finally, emoji can help you bridge gaps in between languages, helping you convey an idea or phrase that exists in one language but not in another. For example, the Italian word “abbiocco” roughly translates to drowsiness after eating a big meal. The concept is universal, but we don’t have a single word in English. However, a string of food and the “sleeping face” emoji encapsulate this idea perfectly. The interpretive range of a series of images may allow for a broader set of meanings than a single untranslatable word.
And just in case you’re not sure which emoji to use, Emojipedia will help you translate.