Emoji Translations

“Tech analysts estimate that over six billion emojis are sent each day.” It is safe to say that emojis have a big involvement in the way we visually communicate. Just as all language and communication requires a certain level of translation and interpretation this is also true for emojis. I have a fun story to illustrate how I first became aware of this reality.

August 2017 I was preparing for my first gallery art show titled “What is Art?” As the name suggests the content of the show was very random and unconventional. Former coworker and cake artist Terra Crudup agreed to decorate a cake for the event as a way to express her favorite form of art. After some thought and discussion we decided on a design replicating a ‘cake emoji’ as a complement to other emoji related art that was already in the show. The final decision was communicated over text message as I sent the cake image to her in a text from my iphone. She agreed and started planning the project. I later spoke to her on the phone and there was a brief mention of the cake that would have 3 fat candles and something that looked like strawberries on top. I was perfectly delighted with the idea and confident in Terra’s abilities.

As opening night approached and a few of my controversial pieces were dropped from the lineup the cake was actually moved to front and center of the planned display. As the finishing touches were coming together for the event Terra sent me a message saying how she stayed up all night completing the cake and it was all ready for the show! When she sent me a picture of a unrecognizable brown cake with green candles and stripes I was very confused… was this a joke? I called her and was struggling to find the right words to say…

Me: “Um… what happened why is the cake brown?”
Terra: “What do you mean? This is the cake that you sent me over the phone.”
Me: “Um.. No its not”
Terra: “Yes it is.”

After retracing the conversation and sending some screen shot images back and forth we realized that because Terra has an android phone the translation of the cake image was different than the one I sent from my iphone. I did not know what to do, I knew how much work Terra put into the cake and she made it look exactly the way she saw it on her phone. Now I am usually a very easy going man that makes the best of all situations, but I just could not handle this surprise. I broke down and had something like a bride-zilla moment.

Me: Sorry Terra this is just not going to work. The colors look ugly to me..
Terra: ……………………….
Me: We have to try to make another cake tonight or something, what can we do?
Terra: Seriously………….?

Terra and I usually always have friendly interactions but I thought in this moment she might want to curse my name and give up on the whole project. Somehow we were able to come to an agreement where we worked together to make a last minute white iphone style cake. After the shock wore off and I got to see the cakes in person I became more comfortable with the original cake and regretted calling it ugly. I then realized that in relevance to the event concept “What is Art?”the whole learning experience was in fact part of the ‘art.’ What a great lesson this was on communication and interpretation even for something as seemingly straight forward as an emoji.

This story illustrates an extreme situation of emoji miscommunication, however I would imagine that with the amount of emojis used daily that there are a lot more subtle confusions that result in these translations that could very possibly be going undetected. After doing more research I learned that there are actually many different cake images used by different service providers and not just the cake but many other emojis have similar variations. A colleague shared an article with me that explains some of the history of the situation and it was interesting to learn that there is an official process where anyone can submit emoji ideas to be selected by an emoji committee and added to the official collection. This art project clearly highlights the importance that translation plays in effective communication for all forms of visual, verbal and written language.

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