"Language is never enough to say what we mean," muses artist, designer, and author Joe Hale. That's why he recently undertook the herculean task of translating the entirety of Lewis Carroll's psychedelic classic, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, into emojis. In the past, we've seen attempts at full emoji translations of large texts, including crowdsourced efforts to turn Herman Melville's Moby Dick into Emoji Dick, and Kamran Kastle's $25,000 Kickstarter effort to emojify the Bible, but Hale has translated the entire novel—an approximately 300 hour process—all on his own.
The result tale takes the form of the four-foot-tall Wonderland Emoji Poster. The tale begins with a combination of "backhand pointing down," "rabbit," and "heavy large circle," to depict Alice's journey down the rabbit hole. Alice, represented by the princess emoji, encounters a Cheshire "smiling cat face with open mouth emoji," a mad "top hat emoji," and frightening "crown emoji" of hearts. Hale painstakingly translated these images, along with dozens more, from Carroll's original text, layering over 25,000 separate symbols until, "the emoji text was sufficiently dense that [he] could transliterate the emoji back into a crude version of the original."
Joe Hale's Wonderland poster. Courtesy of the artist.
The quest to translate Alice into emoji came during a time when Hale was reading a lot of Carroll's literature and "watching the Disney Alice movie obsessively." Almost as if he himself was a character in one of Carroll's stories, a vivid dream sparked his inspiration while he napped in his garden, taking him through an emoji-fied version of Carroll's already trippy world. "I think Alice is particularly suited to emoji," Hale tells The Creators Project. "if I didn't do this project somebody else would eventually. It's a natural fit."
We asked Hale about his personal relationship with emoji, how he managed to actually translate an entire book into the ubiquitous symbols, and why Alice in Wonderland and emoji go together so well:
How much do you use emoji in everyday conversation? When did you first start using them?
All my texts/tweets/comments, etc. are supplemented with emoji nowadays but I guess I'm a reluctant adopter of technology. I only just got an iPhone! This time last year I probably didn't know about emoji, but when I saw it I instantly recognized its potential for my writing.
Do you consider yourself "fluent" in emoji?
When I finished Wonderland I found I could read it back, but I wouldn't say I'm fluent. Everyone's use of emoji is so idiosyncratic, which is what makes it so great. For me it's a fun writing system I like to use to try and escape English for a little bit and think in pictures.
How did the idea to replicate a book with emoji first occur to you? Why Alice in Wonderland?
I had a vision. I was reading a lot of Lewis Carroll and watching the Disney Alice movie obsessively. One sunny afternoon I fell asleep in my garden with a copy of Alice in Wonderland in my lap and I had a very very powerful dream of an emoji Wonderland. It truly did come straight from my subconscious. I was just ready to receive the vision. I think Alice is particularly suited to emoji though. It's a very visual novel, and the actual language of the book is so simple, with all the animals, flowers and stuff, that if I didn't do this project somebody else would eventually. It's a natural fit.
Walk me through your translation process.
When I was translating I put the emojis on in layers—almost more like painting than writing—until the emoji text was sufficiently dense that I could transliterate the emoji back into a crude version of the original. I think I put about five of these layers on, then countless read-throughs, cross-checks, etc. until I was reading through the text and not changing anything. It was a dreamy, dizzying endeavor.
Were there any particularly difficult sequences to translate?
There were really not too many difficult sequences after I'd developed my method and emoji vocabulary, as Alice and emoji go together so well. I think there are parts of Carroll's text which are nonsensical, so there's nothing to do but make emoji nonsense and create a visual effect which conveys the maddening nature of the original.
"And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?" Image courtesy of the artist.
What is the most important aspect of your Alice in Wonderland poster that people might not understand?
That it's not necessarily meant to be read. I think the idea, "Alice in Wonderland translated into emoji," is powerful enough to create images in the reader's mind's eye, and anybody curious enough can develop these images into their own personal Wonderland in their head and escape to that place. People should just use my poster as a visual aid to think about Wonderland, trip out and explore their imagination. Or: be inspired to read some Lewis Carroll!
What role do you think emojis have in today's culture?
I'll say what I think emoji reveals. I feel language is never enough to say what we mean. The prevalence of emoji indicates we're trying to transcend language and achieve some higher form of communication.
What other projects have you got coming up?
Wonderland is tentatively the first part of a trilogy, so some more adventures in emoji. I also published my first novel, Getting Inside Simon Morris' Head, in 2014. That could spin off into another extreme writing experiment. And I have a kind of sister project to Wonderland, which would be Through the Looking-Glass, but in mirror-writing, so completely reversed or flipped on a horizontal axis. I would like to try and make that book happen somehow.