Text Me, Ishmael: Reading Moby Dick in Emoji | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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(Courtesy of Fred Benenson)

Text Me, Ishmael: Reading Moby Dick in Emoji

Why someone would translate Herman Melville’s classic into emoticons

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Although Moby-Dick is regarded as a pinnacle of American Romanticism, its themes of destiny and defiance transcend national borders. Over the decades, the Library of Congress has procured editions translated into Spanish, German, Russian, Japanese, Korean and Lithuanian. But the latest translation eschews the written word altogether, telling the story through emoji icons—the pictograms seen in text messages and e-mails. It’s the most ambitious (and playful) effort to explore whether emoji itself is becoming a free-standing language.

Emoji first emerged in the mid-1990s, when a Japanese pager company sought to gain an edge over its competitors by providing a way to add a dash of emotion and color to online communiqués. In the years since, it has grown into a lexicon of more than 800 ideograms.

In Emoji Dick, each and every sentence of Melville’s classic is paired with its pictogram equivalent. The book is the creation of Fred Benenson, a data engineer at the fund-raising site Kickstarter, who has been passionate about emoji since 2009, when he first activated the icons on his iPhone using a third-party app. (Apple at first intended emoji only for the Japanese market, and didn’t open them to U.S. consumers until 2011.) Benenson sent message after message to his brother, getting excited about this “new mode of expression,” he says. Eventually, he wondered, “What’s the furthest I could push this?” Benenson didn’t emojify Moby-Dick by himself. Using more than $3,500 raised from Kickstarter, he had the worker bees of Amazon’s online Mechanical Turk—a service that pays people small sums to do small online tasks—go through the text line by line. Three people translated each sentence; a second set voted on which translation was best.

Would anyone proficient in emoji be able to appreciate the nuances of the novel? “As a conceptual piece, it’s successful,” Benenson says, laughing. As a literal translation—well, he thinks around 10 percent of the sentences display glints of brilliance. I found myself smiling at some of the more imaginative efforts, such as when a “lighted tomahawk” is made manifest by combining the symbols for fire and a judge’s gavel. Still, the limitations of the pictogram vocabulary quickly become apparent: A telephone and mustachioed face lack the literary punch of “Call me Ishmael.”

“It’s up to the readers of Emoji Dick to decide whether to take it seriously as content,” says Michael Neubert, a digital projects specialist at the Library of Congress, who acquired the book. What intrigues him is that it is “an artifact of this particular moment in time”—a unique representation of digital language for future generations to study when emoji, and perhaps even cellphones, have gone the way of the telegraph.

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