Inside the Mind that Translated Moby Dick Into Emoji

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Fred Benenson just can't help it. He thinks in images. So when he discovered that he could text message using the Japanese pictographs, emojis, it was a breakthrough moment. "I realized that it was exercising this part of my brain that I probably have more faculty with than just language," he told New Tech City in the latest episode about about digital tools for visual expression

He was so adept at thinking in these tiny pictures that he wanted to test out how expressive they could be and where they might enhance written English. So Benenson set up an operation, with the help of the crowdsourcing sites Kickstarter and Mechanical Turk, to translate one of the greatest works of literature into tiny images meant for text messaging. It's called, Emoji Dick and it was recently entered into the Library of Congress. 

“I fully admit that there are large portions of the book that don’t make any sense, and there are a number of reasons for that," Benenson concedes. For one, proper nouns are hard to convey in emoji. Melville is just a tough read, being another obstacle to simple translation. But, the challenges of the graphical lexicon are exactly what make this a work of literature worth paying attention to meaning arises from interpretation as well as the author's intent. 

Click the audio player above to hear Benenson explain how he translated hundreds of pages of florid nautical prose into tiny images. It gets a little testy, and humorous as he defends some of the more bizarre sentence translations in a good-natured exchange in the New Tech City studio. 

This is part of the full New Tech City podcast about visual thinking and communicating, to hear the rest of the show, subscribe to the podcast here, or listen to the most recent episode here: