Translating Emojis Across Jurisdictions

Emoji Translation Services

There’s a growing demand for translating and interpreting emojis and emoticons in foreign language documents and text messages for use as evidence in court.  They say a picture is worth a thousands words. If that is the case, then courts will have their hands full dealing with the interpretation of a whole new language emerging from the illuminated screen on our smart phones – emojis. And that interpretation process typically deals with ambiguity of various images across different languages, cultures, and jurisdictions.

Over the last decade, as texting has become the most common form of casual communication, emoticons and their more animated cousins – emojis – have gained a strong presence in our daily lives and have even become a new form of literacy. Not surprisingly, emojis and emoticons have now worked their way into our American jurisprudence. More and more cases are being decided where the main issue is the interpretation of the cute little pictures we include in our daily texting routine.

Emoticons and emojis, as we all know, were created to give us a better sense of the tone of a text communication. It is said so often it has become cliché to acknowledge that it can be hard to understand the nuance of a text or the intention simply based on the words. Indeed, how many times has an innocuous text been misinterpreted by the recipient of something more nefarious? Texting something in jest now can be clearly stated by just adding a smiley face at the end.

Emojis actually helped make the point that a great deal of communication between people happens not through words but through facial expressions. Emojis permit a modicum of facial expressions in our texting lives.

What has come to the fore, however, is that even with the assistance of expressive emojis, misinterpretations are still possible. As a consequence, those misunderstanding have found their way to the courts. In fact, a search through cases for the year 2016 has revealed approximately 80 judicial opinions dealing with emojis and emoticons. This article will provide some fascinating examples of when emojis were unable to send the intended text message with clarity.

The Smiley Face Emoji that Cemented a Lease Deal in Israel

In a case not long ago, a landlord in Israel placed an online ad to rent his apartment. A prospective renter texted the landlord stating, “Good morning (emoji smiley face) we want the house (other emojis such as a dancer, champagne, and a victory sign) just need to go over the details . . . When suits you?”

The landlord and the prospective renter continued to exchange texts. In reliance on those texts, the landlord removed his online ad, thinking that the prospective renter with whom he was corresponding would take the apartment. After a few days, however, the prospective renter stopped texting, just disappeared.

Feeling burned, the landlord went to small claims court. He argued that a contract was formed between him and the prospective renter because he removed the ad in reliance on the prospective renter’s expressed and implied intent to take the apartment. That common concept in contract law is called promissory estoppel, where a person is precluded from rescinding a promise after the other party relied on the promise to his detriment.

The judge in the case found for the landlord, awarding $2,200 in damages, reflecting the lost opportunity the landlord suffered by taking the “for rent” ad down. The judge noted:

The . . . text message sent by Defendant . . . included a smiley, a bottle of champagne, dancing figures and more. These icons convey great optimism. Although this message did not constitute a binding contract between the parties, [it] naturally led to the Plaintiff’s great reliance on the Defendants’ desire to rent his apartment . . . These symbols, which convey to the other side that everything is in order, were misleading.

The judge added that emojis are now an integral part of modern communication, and thus open to legal interpretation.

Other Emoji Dependent Legal Decisions that Interpret Emoji Meaning

Though cute and fun, emoji usage has led to misunderstandings in other legal cases where the stakes were quite high, such as contract matters (as the case above illustrates), sexual harassment cases, or criminal cases. Here are some recent examples:

• A prosecutor in a federal criminal drug case read to the jury an Internet post written by the defendant. The prosecutor neglected to include the smiley-face emoticon at the end of the post. That oversight drew an objection and an instruction to the jury on the defendant’s use of emoticons in his emails. See United States v. Ulbricht, 858 F. 3d 71 (2d Cir. 2017).

• A hateful Facebook post was accompanied by an emoji of money with wings, which typically signifies money lost, and a sad-face emoji. The entire post, emojis included, were deemed to be evidence of a threat. See People v. Moye, 51 Misc. 3d 1216(A) (Sup. Ct. Queen Cty. 2016).

• The highest court in the U.S., the United States Supreme Court, grappled with another offensive, threatening Facebook post. The defendant argued before the jury that his threatening post was a joke because it contained a “sticking your tongue out” smiley-face. The Supreme Court remanded the case, and the lower appeals court upheld the defendant’s conviction because the smiley-face did not ameliorate the threat in the post. See United States v. Elonis, 841 F.3d 589 (3d. Cir. 2016).

In sum, emoticons and emojis are a part of everyday life now. Translating them can be tricky, particularly if you are dealing with use of emojis in other countries. Culture and custom may induce people to utilize emojis in very different ways.

One way to better understand cultural and language differences, including such differences involving emojis, is to obtain the assistance of a qualified legal translation service. We invite you to contact All Language Alliance, Inc. We have in-depth knowledge not only of languages but of cultures and customs. Therefore, we can help you interpret an emoji embedded in a non-English text, and provide an understanding of how the emoji is being used based on culture. Contact our certified translation service to hire an emoji translator today. 🙂

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