Translating Emojis: How Cultures See Emotion Differently

by Drew Evans
4 Minute Read

In 1999, Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita kicked off a project to help streamline communication on an early internet system by creating small pictograms. Little did he know that instead, he was the catalyst for what would become one of the most popular ways of online communication.

At first, these tiny emojis were mainly used in Japan only — especially when texting through mobile devices — but gained worldwide popularity when Apple released the first iPhone. By 2010, other mobile brands started adding emojis into their operating systems, and have since gone from a simple way of expressing emotions to a social language that has become part of many cultures and societies.

Cultural Differences Spread to Emojis, Too

But emojis are seen differently from culture to culture, as some have completely different meanings depending on the recipient. As a result, translating them can be a complex task.

However, as more and more companies move to an increasingly digital presence, localization of content (emojis included) is crucial. In fact, 92% of online consumers use emojis, so ensuring their proper translation must be considered from businesses strategy and branding perspective. Translating emojis may be easy to consider a secondary concern, but it requires cultural knowledge, since the context for each emoji’s use case needs to be understood.

The differences in emoji culture are common enough that in 2017, business psychology expert Keith Broni was hired by a translation company as the world’s first emoji translator. According to Broni, emojis need to be translated because they are neither universal nor a “true” language - they can’t be used alone to carry on meaningful communication. Instead, they are a tool used to complement language, thus serving a similar (and to some, an equally important) purpose that punctuation serves.

These days, emojis can be used alone or to emphasize written text. From human faces showing happiness, tears, and anger, simple emojis have evolved to include animals, foods, musical instruments, symbols, celebrations, and more. And while everyone may have access to the same sets of emojis, not every culture or language uses them as English speakers do.

Examples of Different Emojis Meanings

If you're planning on localizing content that includes emojis, here are just a few examples of popular emojis that carry completely different meanings depending on the locale:

Thumbs Up: In Western culture, this emoji is a common hand gesture that often means approval or positive reinforcement. However, in Middle Eastern cultures, it is an offensive and vulgar symbol.

Waving Hand: In Western culture, this familiar hand symbol represents what may be thought of as a universal greeting. But in China, this emoji is used as a sign of breaking off a friendship.

Face with Tears of Joy: Many in the United States and Latin America use this emoji as a sign of laughing hysterically. That's not the case everywhere - in China, it may be used to express frustration, while in the Middle East, it may be seen as a representation of grief.

Folded Hands: Mostly used by Westerners in religious contexts (as it resembles praying hands), this emoji does not carry religious connotations for other cultures. In Japan, it is mainly used to say “thank you”.

OK Hands: This is commonly used in the United States to mean OK, while in Brazil, this emoji is an offensive sign, often used as an insult.


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Ultimately, localizing emojis can be seen as just another important step in the process of internationalization. While emoji usage is often thought of as an international representative of emotion, that's often not the case. 

If you’re thinking about localizing your content to expand globally, be sure to request a live demo of the Lilt platform today and chat with an expert to see how adaptive machine translation can improve your efforts.