MACERATA — In the first chapter of Carlo Collodi’s children’s classic The Adventures of Pinocchio, the carpenter Mastro Ciliegia notes that “this piece of wood” came just in the nick of time for him to make a table out of. Writing in 1873, Collodi could never have predicted that his own book — 144 years later — would be the prime material for someone else to fashion a new book. (And new language?)

Published last year by Apice Libri, Pinocchio in Emojitaliano is the first-ever Italian book written entirely in emojis. The book includes the original version in Italian, as well as an emoji glossary and grammar guide. While several other books have been “translated” into emojis in recent years, from Moby Dick to the Bible, Pinocchio is the first attempt to standardize an entire language using the emoticons. This new digital dialect is the result of a collaborative effort between an active Twitter community, university researchers, and a bot on the messaging app Telegram that helped build the emoji dictionary.

“In the months of translating on Twitter, we realized that it would be impossible to memorize the semantic values assigned to each emoji and manually update the growing dictionary,” says Francesca Chiusaroli, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Macerata in central Italy. So she enlisted the help of her colleagues Johanna Monti and Federico Sangati, who developed the Telegram bot. Still active, the bot helped the researchers record the emoji-word pairings and build a search engine that allows users to search the emoji-Italian dictionary.

'Guilt' is translated as a man followed by a woman and an apple.

Single emojis have limited ability to describe all the words in the Italian language, so the team turned to sequences of emoticons instead. “Workshop” is translated as a house followed by a hammer and wrench; “guilt” is biblically translated as a man followed by a woman and an apple.

Pinocchio, the protagonist, is rendered as a running man, followed alternately by a plant or by a robot. The book explains that the word pinocchio is commonly used to refer to certain vegetables, hence the plant, while the robot recalls village fairs in 19th-century Tuscany that displayed robot-like machines known as burattini.

Francesca Chiusaroli's book — Source:

“Translating the book and building a common code base was an extremely complex task, the product of eight months of work by a community of translators,” says Chiusaroli. “The book provides readers with everything they need, including a glossary and a grammar guide.”

As universally valued as Collodi’s novel is, its emoji translation takes on a more academic importance than its textual counterpart. The challenge of translating the novel into Italian shines a light on how differences in cultures, platforms, and operating systems have made emojis far less universal than they were designed to be — one emoticon may not mean the same thing in two different countries or languages. There are now even people who translate emojis for a living, helping to bridge the gaps across language that the visual symbols were meant to eliminate.

“Emojis are in the keyboards of all our digital devices, they are accessible to everyone.” says Chiusaroli. “Their standardized code creates a platform for communication between people regardless of their differences. In the age of social media, having symbols that can speak to everyone is an invaluable advantage.”

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