Is it OK that I find this alarming? The Library of Congress has announced its acquisition of a version of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Or The Whale completely translated into emojis. Yes, those smartphone-friendly pictographs of happy faces, hearts, cupcakes and, perhaps in this case, Physeter macrocephalus.
According to the LOC, a data engineer named Fred Benenson started a Kickstarter campaign in 2009 to fund the translation project, and within a month raised enough money to put it together. He contracted thousands of people to translate one sentence of the book into emoji, had the best ones voted into place and compiled the book—Emoji Dick—from those.
Hence, the immortal first line of Melville’s masterpiece, “Call me Ishmael,” turns into pictures of a telephone, a dude’s face with a mustache, a sailboat, a whale (phew!) and a hand giving the “A-Okay” sign.
In his Kickstarter proposal, Fred explained, “I’m interested in the phenomenon of how our language, communications and culture are influenced by digital technology. Emoji are either a low point or a high point in that story, so I felt I could confront a lot of our shared anxieties about the future of human expression by forcing a great work of literature through such a strange new filter.”
Why would the Library of Congress be interested in acquiring the crowdsourced creation? “What is striking for the Library’s collections about this work is that it takes a known classic of literature and converts it to a construct of our modern way of communicating, making possible an investigation of the question, ‘is it still a literary classic when written in a kind of smart phone based pidgin language?’” says Michael Neubert, a recommending officer for the Library’s collections. “Simply demonstrating that it is possible is interesting in that regard.”
I’m not convinced that people will absorb the intensity of Melville’s writing and the timelessness of the story—or its grim struggle of man over nature—through cute pictures of boats and suns. I mean, there are no emojis of harpoons, blubber try-pots, or freaky peg-legged skippers for a reason.