'Moby Dick' gets new translation — into emoticons

The Library of Congress welcomed "Emoji Dick" — comprised entirely of tiny images sent in text messages — into its official catalog.

Call me ishmael.

The Library of Congress welcomed into its collection a version of "Moby Dick" that would probably be unintelligible to the book's original author, Herman Melville.

That's because "Emoji Dick" is written entirely in emoji the Japanese term for emoticons and picture characters.

Data engineer Fred Beneson started the "crazy project" on Kickstarter, where he asked for $3,500 to pay freelance Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to translate the novel from English into smiley faces, whales and other image icons that commonly appear in text messages. Mechanical Turks work on a per-job basis, accruing small payments for doing quick, simple tasks, like translating a single line of a book into emoji.

'Emoji Dick': A 'Moby Dick' translation into emoticons is available at the Library of Congress. IMAGECourtesy photo: Fred Benenson

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According to The New Yorker, Beneson hired Mechanical Turks to translate each sentence of the 200,000-word novel three times. The sentences voted the best by other Turks made it into the book.

Beneson announced the success of the effort and inclusion in the Library of Congress Feb. 19 on Kickstarter. The official Library of Congress catalog record says "Emoji Dick" is 735 pages long and includes color illustrations, presumably the emoji icons.

The Library of Congress announced the acquisition on its blog, where library recommending officer Michael Neubert said, "There is, in the literal sense, no other book in the Library's collections like it ('Emoji Dick')."

"What is striking for the Library's collections about this work is that it takes a known classic of literature and converts it to a construct of our modern way of communicating, making possible an investigation of the question, 'is it still a literary classic when written in a kind of smart phone based pidgin language?'" Neubert said.

The New Yorker asked Beneson why he went through all this trouble just to see "Moby Dick" translated into Japanese texting images.

"I'm interested in the phenomenon of how our language, communications, and culture are influenced by digital technology," he told the New Yorker. "Emoji are either a low point or a high point in that story, so I felt I could confront a lot of our shared anxieties about the future of human expression … by forcing a great work of literature through such a strange new filter."


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