Kickstarter ad absurdum

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For the culture that has everything:

Emoji Dick is a crowd sourced and crowd funded translation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick into Japanese emoticons called emoji.

Each of the book's approximately 10,000 sentences has been translated three times by a Amazon Mechanical Turk worker. These results have been voted upon by another set of workers, and the most popular version of each sentence has been selected for inclusion in this book.

In total, over eight hundred people spent approximately 3,795,980 seconds working to create this book. Each worker was paid five cents per translation and two cents per vote per translation.

The funds to pay the Amazon Turk workers and print the initial run of this book were raised from eighty-three people over the course of thirty days using the funding platform Kickstarter.

By my calculation, that's something like 10000*3*.07 = $2,100, which is not much for a translation of Moby Dick, but a lot for a joke that probably gets tiresome after a couple of pages.

From a reviewer who gives the book zero stars:

This book has a "Preview" link that only shows 12 pages… which is enough to show the title pages and credits… and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING OF THE EMOJI itself. How one can judge whether to buy a $200 hardcover from just the title pages, I don't know. Perhaps the publisher/'author' (all 800+ of them) haven't much faith in the work to allow a real preview? Same goes for the soft cover, paperback, and ebook previews.

Can anyone contribute a page or two of the actual text? Not that I expect to be surprised — my guess is that it should have been called Moby Plankton. (OK, sorry, unfair to protists.)





  1. Parse said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    There is a PDF of the book here:

  2. Sam said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 11:12 am

    It is also licensed CC-BY-SA, so anybody shelling out hundreds has only themselves to blame.

    For my part, I was not impressed. The fact that the creators felt the need to interpolate the original English sentences between the lines of emoji speaks for itself. But here and there, one can find a flash of brilliance.

  3. Richard said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 11:12 am

    I got tired of it after the first 3 lines of emoji.

    Joke fail.

  4. bratschegirl said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 11:17 am

    I confess to confusion at the repeated appearance of an icon that can only be a lipstick.

  5. Philip said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 11:19 am

    Well, I was worried that, since sentences were translated and voted on individually, it might be hard to keep track of things because names and concepts and even objects might be represented by different emoji.

    The result is so much worse than I imagined. Even the idea of including the English text somehow devalues the translation, because you can see how meaningless/bad it is.

    And yes, I got bored on the first page. So, sorry if it's much better later on.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 11:38 am

    (OK, sorry, unfair to protists.)

    You're asking for a protist protest!

    [(myl) Or more specifically, a "pro-protist protest". And my parenthetical remark is then a pro-protist protest test…]

  7. Keith Ivey said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

    Even aside from the problems caused by independent translation of the sentences, how much time can one really expect workers to spend for 5 cents? Coming up with a good emoji translation of a sentence (if such a thing is even possible) surely takes much longer than a minute, but workers are only going to be willing to spend much less than a minute.

    [(myl) I'm afraid that you are overestimating what Turkers expect in the way of payment. The blurb specifies that "approximately 3,795,980 seconds" were spent translating the "approximately 10,000 sentences" in Moby Dick. (I count 11,531 sentences, but whatever.)

    3795980/10000 = approximately 380 seconds per sentence. This paid for three independent translations plus three (?) votes about which translation was best, so (let's say) six sentence-level actions, or (3795980/10000)/6 = approximately 63 seconds per action on average (presumably more time for the translations and less time for the voting).

    The Turkers were paid $0.05 for each sentence-translation, and $0.02 for each translation-comparison vote, so the editors (if we can call them that) paid a total of 3*$0.05+3*$0.02 = $0.21 for each 380 seconds of work, or 0.21*(60*60)/380 = about $2.00/hour, which is more or less typical for Turkers' compensation.]

  8. bks said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

    There is more to plankton than protists.

    [(myl) True (though I think protists are prettiest). But the diversity of algae, invertebrate larvae, bacteria, etc. is certainly another reason not to diss plankton. Still, macro-level organization and higher cognition are not planktonic strong points.]

  9. Noscitur_a_sociis said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    I wasn't expecting much, and I was still very disappointed.

  10. C said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 2:32 am

    The site has a quote from the Telegraph:

    " … highlights the innovative ways in which the labour pool of bored internet users is being tapped to complete complex tasks."

    One might quibble with the penultimate word.

  11. BZ said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

    What struck me is the phrase "Japanese emoticons called emoji". At some point when I wasn't looking, the word "emoticons" went away and "emoji" completely replaced it. I'm glad there is someone who still thinks it's the two are distinct, much like everyone else who has even heard of emoji did only a few years ago.

  12. Graeme said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 6:27 am

    I'd be more impressed if the book were translated into this:

  13. Adrian said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 6:35 am

    Although this project will surely merit a gong at the annual Triviality Awards, it still holds some fascination, as perhaps does any oulipian reworking. For example, the way that "Landlord!" on page 34 requires 30 emoji, whilst a 75-word sentence at the bottom of page 19 requires but 5.

  14. Adrian said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 6:53 am

    The title of chapter 78 is quite amusing!

    There's a somewhat interesting online game called (Little) Alchemy that uses similar-looking symbols. I find there's something quite satisfying in the transformation of words and expressions into pictures and then resolving them into aesthetically pleasing symbols or icons.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 7:44 am

    From reader Mae Sander, under the subject line "Are Emojis Like Chinese? (See the NYT)":

    Your comment on this so-called issue mentioned in today's NYT might be very clarifying!


    "Mr. Davis concedes that emojis could one day evolve into something more.

    "'It’s not a language, but conceivably, it could develop into one, like Chinese did,' he said. 'Pictures can acquire a particular meaning in a particular culture.'"


    VHM: Emojis will never evolve into a language for the simple reason that they are written symbols, not speech. Nor will they ever evolve into a full writing system because they are not directly tied to speech (i.e., language).

    See John DeFrancis, Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems.

    Mr. Davis doesn't have a clue about how the Chinese writing system really works. It is neither pictographic nor ideographic; it is basically a large morphosyllabary.

  16. J. M. Unger said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 8:14 am

    I haven't seen a paper copy of the NYT is a long time: does it run an astrology column?

    At least the reporter uses "concedes," which hints that he knows better and cautions the reader that s/he will soon read an unedited howler. Journalistic restraint, I suppose. I wonder how the NYT would report a creationist saying that dinosaurs and human beings coexisted a mere few thousand years ago.

  17. Bob Ramsey said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 9:10 am

    Well, Jim, since you raise the issue, here's a NYT article on creationism from just last year:

    But anyway, the public's undying fascination with the mythology surrounding Chinese characters reminds me a bit of its fascination with myths about The Great Wall of China. I remember Arthur Waldron wrote in to the Times a few years back to debunk some of them, and his letter unleashed not only rebuttals from readers but shocked responses from the Times' editorial staff.

  18. Emoji, language, and translation | Pinyin News said,

    October 22, 2015 @ 6:58 am

    […] Fortunately, Victor Mair quickly posted something on this. J. Marshall Unger (Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning, The Fifth Generation Fallacy, and Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan) and S. Robert Ramsey (The Languages of China) quickly followed. But since those are in the comments to a Language Log post and thus may not be seen as much as they should be, I thought I'd link to them here. […]

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