Keith Broni is an emoji translator, but it's not what you think

Emojis are sprinkled through 92% of the world’s 3.2bn internet users’ virtual messages. Jonathan deBurca Butler meets the Irish man who’s helping us make sense of them all

EMOJIS have come a long way since their creator, Shigetaka Kurita, unveiled the alphabet’s first 200 characters back in 1999. Today there are no fewer than 6,666 separate characters officially recognised by UNICODE — the emoji world governing body — (who knew?).

“Emoji are all over the globe,” says Keith Broni of Today Translations.

“Facebook released some data recently which showed that on its Messenger platform alone, 5bn emoji icons are sent every day. Messenger has a 1.2bn user base. So if you take that and you add What’s App, another billion, and WeChat in China, which is another billion, you’re talking at least tens of billions of emoji being sent in interpersonal contexts each and every day.”

Naturally enough, businesses are looking at ways to tap into that conversation and that’s exactly where Keith’s skills come into play. The Dubliner is an emoji translator. Though translator is in his title, he is at pains to point out that he does not sit down and transcribe reams of emoji chats and it is unlikely he will be working as an interpreter for the United Nations any time soon. His role is somewhat more nuanced than that.

“It’s a project based consultancy position,” says Keith.

“A lot of what we’ll do is look at some slogans and look at what emojis would work best around those slogans in different contexts. So country, culture, language, these are really important because if you look at the data, and this is completely data driven, we have the Twitter API so we can pull down tens of thousands of tweets and run an analysis on particular emoji icons and see what are the words most closely associated with a certain icon and the ways people are using the icon. We look at what the best emojis are out there to compliment the text we are given or maybe add more to the message that’s not necessarily in the text itself. And we want to do it without overdoing it and making it look too contrived. So I advise on the best icons to augment text or replace it if necessary, based around the audience and I provide training to staff too so they can avoid pitfalls.”

And there are quite a few pitfalls. Keith explains that in France, for example, the heart icon is much more popular as an expression than any facial emojis. He also points to research that recently discovered only 7% of the peach emoji was used to reference an actual peach, in the other 93% it referenced the posterior. The humble aubergine has suffered a similar if more upright fate.

Like any language, things can get lost in translation. So what might be ‘A-OK’ in Ireland, is, in South America, a uncomplimentary reference to an entrance in the posterior. The same place in fact that a raised thumb would go in the middle east should you be thinking of giving any of your Arab friends the thumbs up anytime soon.

“Meaning is use with these icons,” says Keith. “It’s like slang really. And it’s my responsibility to know this so companies avoid embarrassment. Any business has their social media now and of course, they want to engage with their audience more and use emoji but they don’t want to be known as the one who hit an emoji faux pas.” As well as avoiding thumbs and vegetables making it into places they are not wanted, there is the question of clarity. Because it is based around the writing of code points, the emoji alphabet is in fact strictly regulated by the aforementioned Unicode and new emojis, though created every day and usable on some devices are not legible on all devices until they have been registered and signed off on. Even then some mobile phones just don’t get the rendering correct and it can have unwanted results.

“It was International Cookie Day recently,” says Keith, “and the Cookie Monster sent out a tweet with lots of cookie emojis. The problem was that on the Samsung devices it looks like two salted crackers and it looked bizarre but in this instance, the blame has been leveled at Samsung’s particularly interesting rendering of the emoji icons. So that’s another area you can have problems.”

But used effectively the emoji can help add nuance to a message. With emojis we can send a text saying “I hate you”, insert a little winky face, and expect to hear back from our sensitive friend within minutes rather than an awkwardly long two weeks of anxious jumper wringing.

“The exclamation mark and question mark are hardly enough to convey the breadth of emotional context that we have at our disposal in face-to-face conversation,” says Keith. “In many contexts, emoji are replicating that hand gesture, that facial expression, even that posture.” According to Keith, emojis have their place however and thus far are generally used only in certain registers.

“People tend to use emojis when they are pleased or happy. There is a sense of joyousness around them and people use them to create a sense of excitement in their messaging. What’s interesting is, they are so popular now that people not using them is a sign of solemnity almost. So if they hear about the death of a celebrity it is more likely you’ll see the heartbreak emoji or the crying face emoji, whereas if someone tells you some personal heartbreaking news they are unlikely to use an icon at all.”

Australian artist Lucy Barker clearly did not got that particular memo. At a recent art exhibition held, bizarrely, at the oldest graveyard in Australia, she decided to sculpt a tombstone with a smiling ‘Sign Off’ emoji motif. A sign — or an emoji — of things to come perhaps.


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