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The Other News Round-Up: The Writing is on the Wall

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the lesser-reported happenings from South Africa and further afield. This week: emojis for everyone.

Sometimes a subject that’s just too perfect to ignore just falls into your lap. That happened when the Twitterati got hold of the world’s first “emoji translator” this week.

What have we become?” lamented one Ollie Barnes.

People have absolutely no idea what he does,” admitted the Daily Mail.

Irishman Keith Broni landed the presumably plum job with London firm Today Translations, based on the fact that emojis are the fastest-growing communication tool. According to Broni, on Facebook messenger alone, over five billion emojis are sent daily, but interpretation can differ.

Sometimes people may be unsure what they mean or there may be very specific meanings in certain cultures,” Broni told the BBC. Maybe he’s referring to the recent outcry when it emerged that the praying hands were actually high fives.

I’m wondering how long Broni spent studying the Emojipedia or how to find out the meaning of an emoji. Personally, if I’d been the one interviewing him I’d have wasted no time asking when the appropriate time is to send someone a brinjal.

Broni’s says he hopes to “make a real difference in the world of global communications”, specifically avoiding boo-boos in corporate communications. This struck me as particularly puzzling because I didn’t realise we had reached a stage where it was acceptable to communicate on professional platforms using monkeys, rainbows and kissy faces. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m still stuck in the mindset where unless you know someone relatively well, that’s a little bit like writing your CV on scented paper or signing a formal letter with xoxo.

Especially since a recent study found that using smiley faces in professional communications do, in fact, still make one look incompetent. Paradoxically, one’s emails also come across less warmly, and the recipient feels less inclined to share information in response.

Translate that, Broni.

Nonetheless, the creation of this new job – emoji translation – shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to us. Not necessarily in the corporate sphere, 92% of digital users use emojis (against the odds, I like the bat and the sheep; how about you?). Emoji design is being taken seriously enough that the Google Professional Woman emoji was nominated for Design of the Year by the Design Museum in London. (It actually depresses me, more than anything, that a picture of a working woman is still considered this novel, but never mind.) A spokesperson for Google explained that the company had been working on a new line of emojis designed to be role models for girls, including a farmer, a doctor and a mechanic; as well as a graduate wearing a mortar board, a coder or software engineer working on laptop, a high-tech assembly line worker holding a computer chip with tweezers, a scientist, a chef, a teacher, a nurse and a rock-star.

Earlier in August, the first Emoji Movie was released. Granted, it did not achieve critical acclaim. The Telegraph reviewed it as “entirely horrifying”, describing it as “around nine-tenths product placement, at least fifteen-tenths abysmal, and (pulsating) with molten cynicism on every imaginable level.” The summary? “How bad is the Emoji Movie? There aren’t enough poops in the world.”

If the movie dampened your emoji fever, chin up, especially if you still feel let down by the absence of a real prayer emoji. There’s also an Emoji Bible now. An adaptation of the King James version, no less. Cheerfully plugged as Scripture 4 millennials, the Emoji Bible was made available on iTunes a year ago. Incidentally, Broni may be wrong about being the first emoji translator, because the enterprising chap who made the Emoji Bible actually built a custom translator programme to help build emojis that would turn the Good Book into the modern equivalent of cave paintings.

Here’s a sample.

The anonymous translator of the Emoji Bible – we’ll assume it was not Broni – told Memo: “The Bible has a lot of old language, there’s a lot of nuance involved in translating it — a lot of the time, you need to think beyond one-to-one fit. There’s a lot of trial and error, and a lot of rereading.”

The feedback, the translator said, was mixed. “I’ve received a lot of tweets, some very nice, some very not nice,” they said.

Memo, a Christian publication, seemed pretty taken with the whole idea, arguing for accessibility and pointing out that William Tyndale got similar flack for translating the Bible into English in the first place.

Fair enough. But didn’t human beings work hard to move away from communicating in pictures? Isn’t this all becoming unnecessarily complicated, if we need to translate it all back into words so that we can understand it?

The New York Post claims not. “To assert that emojis will make us poorer communicators is like saying facial expressions make your emotions harder to read,” argues Vyvyan Evans. “(It) is ill-informed cultural elitism.”

Emojis don’t replace language, she argues; they provide the non-verbal cues, “fit-for-purpose in our digital text-speak, that helps us nuance and complement what we mean by our words”. But is that really it? I’m not so sure. Tell it to the folks who hired Keith Broni. DM

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