Emojis, or emoticons, might seem like a straightforward bit of fun that transcends spoken and written language. However, they aren’t as universal as you might believe: these small symbols can mean different things to people in other countries.
As an international business, you need to understand that a simple smiling face or thumbs up may be perceived differently by different audiences. With that in mind, you’ll want to pay attention to translating emojis in order to present a unified brand image to consumers around the world.
The Challenge of Translating Emojis
If you work in localization, you’re already aware of the difficulties involved in surmounting cultural barriers. Mere translation may not be enough for full localization, particularly in cases where the original and target languages and cultures are very different.
Emoji translation adds another layer of cultural complexity. Emojis were initially simple characters designed for texting on mobile devices, but they’re now trending in all kinds of content and can be used to express a wide range of emotions. Here are six useful tips to help you translate emojis for international audiences.
1. Do Some Research
First, spend some time researching how locals use emojis to express their feelings in different circumstances. Besides happy faces and hearts, there are multiple ways to use emojis in your content, depending on each targeted culture. In fact, one study found that people in different countries and regions have distinct preferences when using emojis and other symbols in social media messages.
Here are a few examples:
- Russians prefer romantic symbols such as kisses, heart eyes, and couples
- The French use emojis with hearts much more than any other nation
- Users in Arabian countries are more likely to send messages that include flowers and plants
- Canadians typically engage with emojis that involve money
- Americans like to use LGBT-themed emojis such as rainbows and same-sex couples
2. Don’t Make Assumptions
While emojis have taken over the internet, it isn’t always easy to understand the full range of meanings they might convey to your target audience. Keep in mind that some symbols can have more than one meaning and could easily be misconstrued.
When translating emojis, you should make sure you know the meaning of every single character. Don’t rely on your own culture to make assumptions about how an emoji will be perceived by someone with a different background.
Fortunately, resources like Emoji Meanings and Emojipedia make it easy to learn how emojis are used around the world. You need to fully understand the purpose of an emoji within the cultural context in order to maintain the meaning of the original message in translation.
3. Recognize That Images Alone May Not Be Enough
Even though they’re symbols rather than words, emojis can be incredibly effective for online communication—particularly when it comes to adding emotions to otherwise plain text.
However, the line between inducing emotion and creating confusion can sometimes be somewhat fuzzy. It’s important to combine emojis with text and avoid becoming too reliant on non-verbal forms of communication.
Example: Chevrolet originally announced the 2016 Cruze in a bizarre press release that contained nothing but emojis. Communication professionals are still divided over whether this over-the-top message offered any value at all. Unsurprisingly, the company was forced to decode its own message when consumers failed to understand the meaning.
If your web content relies on emojis that won’t make sense in another cultural context, you should remove or substitute them during the localization process.
4. Understand That an Emoji Can Have Several Different Meanings
Using icons to communicate may seem straightforward and efficient, but things can quickly become complicated when you’re navigating. Individuals from other cultures may not have the same associations that you take for granted.
Think about universal feelings like love, anger, or fear. Even if they involve the same underlying emotion, the ways in which people relate and react to them are influenced by social norms that vary widely between different languages and cultures. Even within the same culture, an emoji may send different signals depending on the person’s social background and the context of their message.
Example: One study revealed that the class emoji with a smiley face, open mouth, and tightly closed eyes can elicit either a positive and negative reaction in different circumstances. This is just one example of how people can have unique reactions to the same image.
Example: Emojis have different variants on Android and iOS. With that in mind, a message you write on your Samsung may look different to a user with an Apple iPhone (and vice versa).
5. Always Take Context into Account
Emojis were meant to be a universal language that could be easily understood by anyone. However, most people never actually “learn” the meaning behind any particular emoji. Like with any other form of language, we naturally use the emoji we think is appropriate to the context.
When translating emojis, it’s important to understand what they might mean when taken along with the rest of your content. Emojis will enhance your message and generate more engagement when they make sense to your audience in context.
6. Use an Emoji Glossary
Even considering the challenges involved in translating emojis between different cultures, they’re far too popular to be banished from your content. On the other hand, you risk sending the wrong message to your customers if you take the localization process lightly.
Before translating emojis, make sure you fully understand their purpose in the original content. That will make it easier to find the right emoji in the target language and culture.
Think about emojis as a non-verbal dialect. Setting up an emoji glossary for every language you are working with can help you develop more accurate translations in less time.
Let Localize Help You With Emojis
Localize’s translation management system makes it easy to set up a translation glossary for accurate, consistent localization of industry-specific terms. With a comprehensive glossary, your translated content will always deliver the same message and tone as your original content.
Book a conversation with Localize to learn how we can help you achieve your localization goals.