Carina Finn, Stephanie Berger (translator), The Grey Bird, Coconut Books, 2014
I: A reverse chronological timeline of emoji and other pictographic phenomena
2014—The Grey Bird, a chapbook of "thirteen emoji poems in translation," is published by Coconut Books
2013—I receive my first emoji in May, a test pictograph from a friend titled "Pile of Poo"
2010—iPhone, Gmail, and Android plugins enable the emoji keyboard
2010—The Unicode Consortium publishes an initial set of 722 emoji in The Unicode Standard 6.0, allowing for international compatibility
Mid-2000s—Japan's three main operators incorporate emoji to the delight of their users, who prefer emoji as a playful and negotiable alternative to the prospect of anxiety-provoking direct communication (a language softener, if you will)
1998—Industry pioneers DoCoMo manufacture the first pager with pictographs
1990s—Wal-Mart employs the smiley to advertise low prices
1970s—Philadelphia brothers Murray and Bernard Spain mass produce noveltyitems featuring the yellow smiley face (coffee mugs, bumper stickers, underwear, etc.)
1963—Harvey Ball, commercial artist, designs said smiley face to improve corporate morale at Hanover Insurance
3000 B.C.—Early Mesopotamians leave first evidence of cuneiform pictographs on clay tablets
II: The naturalist's guide to observing emoji
In Ezra Pound's "A Retrospect," the perfect symbol is defined as a natural object, one whose "symbolic function does not obtrude" (9). In the case of the natural object, readers "who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk," the poetic quality remains irreducible (9). Approaching Carina Finn's poetry, then, composed entirely of pictographic emoji symbols—natural, yes, albeit with an indubitable Japanese glint—is a paradoxical undertaking, to read personal symbolism and universal naturalism in simultaneity.
It is a language in which the contemporary reader is automatically literate even if he/she has never encountered the Unicode standard pictographs. It is from this base understanding that Finn constructs syntax that ranges from the hysterical (twenty-seven bombs and a cup of coffee) to the emotionally vulnerable (a blue heart, seven advancing clocks, and a gun). The vulnerability is inherent to the in situ form of the emoji, the cell phone. Finn cultivates her reader as a voyeur even if her reader is not accustomed to receiving such lush text messages.
III: A few comments on the necessary deviance with respect to emoji source-to-target text
While some view the pictograph as an art form, most contemporary users of emoji would agree to call it a picture language. As such, The Grey Bird does not present as an ekphrastic work, but follows a staid convention of translated poetry (source-language text on the left, target-language text on the right), and it must be assumed that the intended relationship between Carina Finn (emoji poet) and Stephanie Berger (translator) is strictly that of poet and translator.
By constructing a variable syntax for emoji in which a pictograph can act as a modifier or predicate for the preceding word, not to mention the temporal abstruseness, it is clear that Berger is lyrically imbuing, associatively interpreting, and non-sequentially narrating Finn's emoji poems. It is a playful contamination of the source language with idiomatic spillover and cryptic winks at the ultimate lingua franca and its source user.
Approximate standard target via The Unicode Standard:
Notwithstanding the absent and/or implicit conjugations of this language, it is evident that Berger forgoes simple decodification, suggesting that in the case of emoji, translation is context-dependent, the prevailing context being some hybrid of American poetry and her friendship with Finn. In Spring and All, William Carlos Williams states, "crude symbolism is to associate emotions with natural phenomena such as anger with lightning [and] flowers with love" (188). Williams pledges "escape from crude symbolism, the annihilation of strained associations, complicated ritualistic forms designed to separate the work from 'reality'" (189). The form of The Grey Bird exquisitely dramatizes Berger's decisions to reinforce or annihilate. In one particularly adherent translation of a title, Berger seems to be in step with Williams, mocking the strained associations.
These literal approximations are likely ironic, and the comic effect is part of the synergy inherent to this collaboration. As I ponder my own translation, I cringe at the applied heuristics: "It's OK to Pregame with a Martini, or 'Cheers to the Grey Bird!' who's fallen in love."
IV: The dawn of emoji
At its most ecstatic, The Grey Bird showcases its collaborators reveling in the elevation of emoji and luxuriating in the accommodations of poetry. At its most self-aware, The Grey Bird balks at its own artifice (Berger refuses to translate a virtual smörgåsbord of eighteen emoji foods, simply replying, "Is that a poem or just a bunch of food?"). At its most forlorn, The Grey Bird becomes pidgin, what Tom McArthur calls, "a marginal language which arises to fulfill certain restricted communicative functions among groups with no common language." Just as indirect nature creates a vacuum—animated clouds and flowers act as meager substitutes for the real thing—so too does emoji further expand the void initiated by text message and email, those silent services that communicate for us, replacing the frequencies of direct communication.