Crowdsourced translation of Moby-Dick into Emoji

Fred sez, "I've just launched a project on Kickstarter to fund the production, via crowd sourcing, of a never-before-released translation of Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick in Japanese emoji icons. Here's an example of an Emoji sentence from Moby Dick:

"I need to raise enough money to pay for each of Moby Dick's 6,438 sentences to be translated 3 times by different Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. Those results will then be voted on by another set of workers, and the most popular version of each sentence will be selected for inclusion in the book. Supporters can pledge varying amounts to get their name included in the book, a CC BY-SA licensed PDF, the raw data, and either a softcover black and white copy or a limited edition color version."

Emoji Dick (Thanks, Fred!)


  1. I need to raise enough money to pay for each of Moby Dick’s 6,438 sentences to be translated 3 times by different Amazon Mechanical Turk workers.

    You know what? I don’t want to be a dick, but in this recession where hundreds of thousands of people are counting every dime that comes in the door, the way that I would choose to help my fellow man would be to raise enough money for Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to thrice-over translate Moby Dick into emoji? Yeah, really, uh, that’s not going to happen, guy. What are you, high?

  2. How exactly does this work? I mean I get the “Call me” part of the sentence being translated into a phone and face, but how does “Ishmael” get turned into a boat, whale, and hand? Is it arbitary, just because Ishmael was on a boat that was looking for a whale, or does it have to do with the relations of the sounds of the words that the icons represent?

  3. Whenever I see something like this, I remember a professor of mine in college, who was patiently listening to a debate about the merits of studying something like gum wrapper art. When there was a break in the conversation, he said something along the lines of, “When I was young, I tried to do everything. Then I realized that I was going to die one day, and that I could choose to spend the time I have thinking about gum wrappers, or thinking about Albrecht Durer. I chose Durer.”.

    I know. I know. “Who’s Durer?”. “Yesterday’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure”. But I’m just sayin’…

  4. I would love to see some graphical analysis of how ridiculous a kooky, happy mutant project must be before it is considered too ridiculous/brazen to solicit funds for.

    I’ll do the analysis myself, if a few of you will pitch in to cover the costs.

  5. Kickstarter, and crowdsourcing in general, can certainly be used to do pointless things that no one would otherwise want to do.

    That’s not the point though, the point is to do interesting/wonderful things that would otherwise be too expensive for one person to pull off.

    Take MakerBeam for an example: here’s a project to build an open source metal building kit, like Meccano for the open source generation. This is a better example of the kind of neat thing platforms like Kickstarter make possible.

    We’re giving away Kickstarter invites for open source projects here. Full disclosure: MakerBeam is my project, I’ve been a happy mutant for years and found this post off the front page w/ my morning cup of maté.

  6. MikeHarris,

    ..but in this recession where hundreds of thousands of people are counting every dime that comes in the door, the way that I would choose to help my fellow man would be to raise enough money for Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to thrice-over translate Moby Dick into emoji?

    So.. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers aren’t your “fellow men”? Are they not also feeling the crunch, and deserving of the scant pittance each will probably receive, in novelty, if not in charity?

    If this is a way of employing people, cheaply and broadly, should we not all be reaching deep?

    /Devil’s Avocado

  7. @ #12

    That kind of logic is what keeps people stuck in outdated economic models long after they should have ditched them. We need to find people to execute useful work, not find any work just to keep people employed. Yeah, we should care about the Amazon workers- as people, not as Amazon workers. If there’s nothing for them to do at Amazon, then we can help them find new jobs in more productive areas.

    In the meantime, this has got to be one of the most idiotic projects I’ve ever heard of…

  8. If this is a way of employing people, cheaply and broadly, should we not all be reaching deep?

    bread without dignity turns to paste in your mouth.

    Which is to say, i think it is a waste of time, and If it were the only job I could get I would hate doing it, but as this is not a waste of my time, i don’t really care.

    Seems to be a waste of the mechanical turks potential, but then again, so what?

  9. If there’s nothing for them to do at Amazon, then we can help them find new jobs in more productive areas.


    But these aren’t “Amazon workers”, per se. They are people who have registered to do piece -work for other people who can offer it, in whatever capacity, through Amazon’s hub.

    This (in my opinion) is the opposite of outmoded/subsidised business models. They are versatile, scalable and able to work around other “real” jobs they may have.


    Work is work, and I have done some gloomy repetitive shit, that required commitment and for me to turn up every day and work in a miserable environment. If I can choose my tasks, pick-up and put-down as I please, and go at a pace I can handle in an environment I like, that sounds like a good enough deal.

    I haven’t looked into Amazon’s policies too deeply (but I certainly will), but lots of jobs are shit, and this seems like it could be less-so, certainly as a means to get extra cash between “real” employment or education.

  10. Sensible enough (re- the amazon model) but still, the point being that it doesn’t make sense to support a project as pointless as this one just so that they’ll have something to do with themselves. Then we’re just adding more useless product to an already-cluttered world.

    Which doesn’t absolve us of the need for compassion for people who need work, or our responsibility in helping them find it!

  11. Agreed, entirely.

    However, if Fred finds people who want this product, and who are willing to pay for it, then more power to them and the people employed to make it :)

  12. I can see obviously interesting aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual implications for an art project that takes a public domain work of art and translates it using a pseudo-propriety alphabet system (emoji) based on a universal system of digital signification (unicode). The legal implications alone are interesting for IP– does Apple own the emoji alphabet?

    The responsibility of any good work of art is to represent contemporary cultural antagonisms-the clash among free and open cultural (historical) material, contemporary idealist notions of a progressive, inclusive technology and the proprietary, for-profit systems of their communication/mediation is maybe the most important techno-cultural contention of the 21st century so far. And this work clearly engages this issue in an interesting way.

    It’s ironic that someone mentioned Durer here, because if you strip his work of any subjective aesthetic arguments for-or-against, he mostly stands out as a historically important figure precisely because he engaged in the same types of questions as they were raised in his own historical moment–questions about ownership of images, reproduction and the re-representation of classic stories in new media…

    Formally speaking, the fact that this project uses Kickstarter as its means of production- another new model for participatory creativity and a tool for artists to regain control over various modes of cultural production that they have been historically alienated from- makes it even more relevant to the questions the work itself raises through its content.

    Anyway- if you reduce the argument of “why should people be wasting time/money on this when there is x that is important,” you are going to be left without any real justification for any human activity. You can make a specific argument that the above issues don’t matter; fine, that’s a debate worth having.

  13. Hey there — thanks for the comments.

    Since its my project, I figured I’d offer a couple of thoughts:

    First, this work isn’t meant to be useful or really anything more than a cultural curiosity or novelty. You could arguably call it art. Far stranger things have.

    To that end, I’m not sure it’s useful to expect it to be useful.

    If you don’t like it, then maybe you’d like a Monet or a Duchamp instead.

    Second, having already processed the first couple of chapters already through MTurk, I really enjoyed the results and thought it’d be great to do the whole book. Kickstarter seemed like the best place to make that happen (considering its kind of expensive) and turn it into a book.

    Third, I don’t think its right to say that Turkers shouldn’t be doing this work because its meaningless, demeaning, boring or not compassionate enough. I’ve actually received MTurk fan-mail for my tasks (see: for another task I assigned) and compared to most of the rest of the other requests on the site (e.g. right a comment on site X using URL Y), I’d say it’s far more engaging. I’ve had several Kickstarter backers even offer to do some of the translations for free.

    I agree there are deep questions about whether MTurk is a fair or equitable marketplace, whether crowd sourcing is a viable form of employment, and so on, but these are precisely the issues I’m interested in instigating with Emoji Dick.

  14. Why? Since when does joy, fun or art need a “Why?”

    I never would have thought of this, and am not interested. But the same holds true for college football.

    He ain’t hurting anybody. He ain’t screaming, “You lie!” at the president. He ain’t filling up the airwaves with another ridonkulous “reality” TV show where truly horrible people vie with even more horrible people for the right to do horrible things with the horrible star.

    Rock on with your funky self.

    Beats the heck out of playing Tetris for 6 hours a day.

  15. This is one of the stupidest things to waste donated money on I’ve ever heard of.

    First of all, it’s a complete sacrilege. I’m sorry, but I don’t care if I’m being culturally elitist or reactionary or insufficiently fringe-cyber-hip: this is ridiculous, tawdry, and idiotic, like a chatspeak Iliad or Faust retold as a contemporary high school drama. The “translation” above made me want to vomit.

    Second, this guy wants people to donate money to get this done? Turning great literature into strings of emoticons? Try again. The fact that donating eventually pays a few cents into the pockets of a couple hundred Mechanical Turk moonlighters means nothing. Virtually anything one spends money on, donation or not, benefits someone’s income.

    The question is what actual value your charitable donation is going to help create for your fellow human beings – and this is possibly at the absolute rock bottom of the list. Give the money to Habitat for Humanity, or the Red Cross, or more specifically similar, a non-profit that translates great books into REAL minority languages. There are thousands of problems in the world that have a pressing need for our aid and attention; the demand for worse-than-useless trivial novelties in Anglo-Japanese cyber-“culture” isn’t one of them.

  16. Translating ‘call’ as a phone is confusing two different meanings of the the same English word.

    Undertaking this project without an understanding of translation or linguistics even to this level, means the end result can only be meaningless. (And not art. Even good translations rarely count as art).

    Unless, of course, he’s lost a comma and it’s meant to say ‘Call me, Ishmael’…

  17. @21

    First, see @18, last graf.


    Who knows? In the future this may be the only copy of Moby-Dick that folks can read ;-)

  18. The only reason I read the comments was because I read this and thought exactly the same as many others – Why?

    I guess that if enough people disagree and contribute then fair enough. But the Durer comment should apply to Boing Boing too. I’m spending time reading this site, with sooo much of this kind of thing – I start asking myself “shouldn’t I be doing something more important than reading, or even commenting on this?”

    Life is too short. There are huge problems to be solved, and far more beautiful things to create.

    That’s my honest opinion. I’m off to play with my son now before the ice cap melts…

  19. I love that (as far as I can tell), the emoji representation of “Ishmael” includes a whale icon.

    Ideally, all of the characters in Moby-Dick would have icon names depicting different relationships to a whale icon.

  20. Melville should be whirling in his grave by now. They’re taking his carefully crafted text & essentially making it unreadable. It’s like those “universal” washing hieroglyphics on clothing that make it even harder to discern their care & maintenance than just using plain text.

  21. HereticGestalt,

    The people donatiing the money know what they are funding..

    And “charitable donation“?


  22. That’s astoundingly useless.

    As pointed out: Turning the verb ‘call’ into a phone confuses two meanings. It’s a visual pun that only an English-speaker would understand.

    What’s the use of a pictographic writing if it only works with knowledge of a certain language? Does this even work in ‘Emoji’ itself – seeing as how it’s Japanese?

  23. @29, Melville was whirling in his grave before they threw dirt on it. Moby Dick was a (complete) critical failure when it came out. Melville was far better known for south seas travel narratives like Typee and Omoo. It is only because of literary modernism and 20th century literary criticism that Moby Dick became a “great american novel” and that we seldom read his popular texts. It is absurd to say that this project is hurting him.

    It is fun to imagine the reception of this project in 150 years — isn’t that the point too, that things with no immediate use or simple meaning are open to the changing fortunes of history (when we all write in emoji, and pronounce “the” “teh”)

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