We spend a lot of time each day looking at, tweeting, and texting emoji, but few of us get paid to do so. Keith Broni, on the other hand, makes his living doing just that.
Last December, London-based translation company Today Translations put out a call for an “emoji translator.” The job listing made news, partly because of its novelty — it’s believed to be the first role of its kind — and partly because it just sounds like so much fun. Who doesn’t want to spend their day looking at emoji?
Today Translations received over 500 applications, and the interview process took five months, but Broni emerged as the winning candidate. You can’t major in emoji translation (at least, not yet), but Broni’s educational background does complement the role. The Irishman graduated from University College London with a Master’s degree in business psychology. His dissertation, which was entitled using only emoji, looked at the ways that consumer behavior can influence how we perceive emoji in combination with various brand names.
Broni’s passion for emoji — a job requirement, obviously — is so strong that he organized Europe’s first Emoji Spelling Bee, in which contestants were given a limited amount of time to convert a phrase into emoji. When Today Translations posted the job, multiple friends sent Broni the listing, recognizing that it was a natural fit for a man whose days were already defined by hearts, smileys, and thumbs-up icons.
The interview process began with a short emoji test, asking applicants to decipher the meanings of some emoji combinations, as well as write a few sentences exclusively in emoji. The test was followed by a phone interview and then a presentation on what a handbook for using emoji might look like.
The job, as fun as it might seem, is far more complicated than it sounds. “The hardest things I’ve had to translate are ones where the intention is for it to be highly universal,” Broni explains during a phone interview with Refinery29. Even though emoji are often referred to as the new universal language, meanings can vary widely from one culture to the next. Take the thumbs up emoji.
“It’s very popular in the West, and is the ubiquitous Facebook icon, but in the Middle East it’s equivalent to an offense, like giving someone the middle finger,” Broni says.
The same goes for the A-Okay hand gesture, which Broni says can be very offensive in Latin America. Even the basic happy face isn’t so basic. In China, Broni says it’s often used to convey that you’re finished, or done with a conversation.
Another element that complicates emoji interpretation is which device you’re using to view the icons. Since smartphone makers such as Samsung and Apple are allowed to design their own, system-appropriate renditions of the characters, how they appear can differ if you’re using one type of phone to send an emoji to a friend with another type of phone. On Samsung phones, for example, Broni says that the rolling eyes emoji looks slightly hopeful, while the smirking face looks more “meh” and less flirty than it does on iOS. Let this be a word to the wise: You might want to rethink texting an emoji after a first date, given the potential for some major misinterpretation.
Broni’s job is create an etiquette guide breaking down not only the meanings of individual emoji in different cultures, but also the meanings of strings of emoji together and emoji variations across devices. It’s a monumental task and one that, if done incorrectly, has the potential to incite social outrage.
The introduction of new emoji every year means Broni will need to constantly update any guide he creates. “I’m most fascinated to see how they impact the usage trends of preexisting emoji,” Broni says of the upcoming release of Emoji 5.0. “Will mind-blown become the new emoji synonym for wow instead of the current mouth wide open emoji?”
The new emoji are already available on Twitter, but we’ll likely need to wait until they come to iPhones this fall to understand how they’re used more broadly. [Insert angry face emoji here.]
Unfortunately, Today Translations hasn’t put out a call for another emoji translator yet. Still, you might want to start prepping now should the opportunity arise again. In the meantime, you should probably avoid inserting emoji into upcoming job applications. Though Broni says the icons have become acceptable as their popularity grows, they’re still rarely deemed appropriate in formal communications. Best to stick with the tried and true guidelines and save the (IRL) smiley face for your in-person interview.