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Wanted: an emoji translator. Only humans need apply

Hiding behind our emotions.
Hiding behind our emotions.
Image: AP Photo/Eugene Tanner
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A UK company is hiring its—and possibly the world’s—first emoji translator.

According to a job posting on the company’s jobs portal, London-based Today Translations is looking for someone to write monthly reports on emoji trends, and to execute direct translations. The freelance hire will be paid by the word—er, emoji—for translations, and hourly for report-writing. So far, Today Translations has received more than 30 applications, according to the BBC, and is using a ”practical test of emoji knowledge/skills” to evaluate them (probably something like this). The company, whose clients include CNN, L’Oreal, and Discovery Networks, works in more than 200 languages around the world.

“We stay constantly abreast of the latest language trends in the service of ever-changing client needs,” the company wrote in the job listing, “but feel that the accelerating pace of change in this burgeoning area now demands a specialist focus.”

Emoji has no native speakers, but there is some logic to hiring an interpreter—Today Translations CEO Jurga Zilinskiene said the position was created after a client approached the firm about translating a family diary into emoji. There are currently 2,389 characters in the emoji-verse, compared with, for example, more than 171,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Emoji is already Britain’s fastest-growing language, according to UK language experts, and is constantly being updated and added to by its governing body, The Unicode Consortium.

Various software does exist to decipher the literal meaning of the glyphs: That’s how iMessage predicts emoji responses and virtual assistants suggest emoji suited to particular users. But emoji, like words, aren’t totally rigid—their meanings vary depending on context and geographical region, as well as the intentions of the sender and the receiver.

Take, for example, Japan’s onsen symbol (♨️), which denotes hot springs on maps in the country. Japan is considering changing the symbol to avoid confusing tourists during the 2020 Tokyo games—they’re worried visitors will think it’s a plate of food with steam. Similarly, the thumbs-up emoji (👍), usually a sign of “all good,” is considered a rude gesture in Thailand and Arab nations. Lawyers are even starting to present emoticons as evidence.

Hiring an emoji guru is “the equivalent of hiring a language translator instead of using Google Translate,” says Emojipedia founder Jeremy Bunge. “Emojis all have meanings, and we list each of them on Emojipedia. But sometimes you still want a human to interpret them in context.”