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Meet a guy who makes a living translating emojis

Keith Broni, the world's first Emoji Translator, works for Today Translations
Keith Broni, the world's first Emoji Translator, works for Today Translations

Emojis may seem simple and fun but use them in an incorrect manner and it can be a huge embarrassment, or worse.

Take the humble cookie. On July 7, the official twitter profile for Sesame Street's Cookie Monster posted a tweet to commemorate world chocolate day, which included an emoji of a chocolate chip cookie.

However, on Samsung Android devices, this particular emoji appears as a pair of saltine crackers.

To some this is a trifling matter but for businesses and individuals this can prove to be hugely damaging, especially when they are trying to reach younger audiences. And that's why some businesses are reaching out to specialists, like Keith Broni from Ireland. He's the first person in the world with the job title Emoji Translator and it's his job to help companies navigate safely through this growing emoji media minefield.

One issue with using emojis, Broni explains, is that they can differ in appearance from platform to platform. The shape of the emoji, and even its color, can appear remarkably different, depending on the device or operating system used.

One example, according to Broni, is the "rolling eyes" emoji. On most devices this would convey the meaning of someone rolling their eyes in disdain, but on others it may appear as if the eyes are shooting up in expectation.

Broni works for London-based Today Translations, which provides translation and interpretation services internationally. He beat 500 other applicants for the role. Clients he has worked with include PR firms and the marketing departments of multinational companies. His first translation for the company involved changing several idioms (such as "no pain, no gain" or "speak of the devil") into understandable emoji versions.

He explained that emojis can be very helpful to businesses. They add emotional context and non-verbal communication to a piece of text. They're also very popular, and not just with the young - older generations are increasingly using them also.

"Emojis allow us to imbue digital messages with the non-verbal cues inherent in face-to-face interaction: they allow us to signify the emotional context of a statement which would normally be conveyed in vocal tone, pose or gesture, rather than just the words themselves," Broni told CNBC via email.

Thanks to his master's degree in business psychology from University College London, Broni understands the growing importance of emojis to consumer marketing and communications. But they are not without their potential pitfalls.

Emojis on mobile phones
Miguel Medina | AFP | Getty Images

Emojis have dramatically increased in number since the first set of 176 icons was developed in Japan in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita while he was working for Japanese mobile operator DoCoMo. There are now over 2,000 icons when you take into account variants for gender and skin tone.

But some have also changed their appearance, in some cases both recently and dramatically. Apple, for instance, replaced the gun emoji with a water pistol in August 2016. A tweet sent from an iOS device which uses the water pistol, perhaps to advertise a new toy, would appear on an android device as a revolver.

Certain emoji also hold different meanings to different cultures. The thumbs up emoji is popular in the West and Facebook users "like" posts with the thumbs up button, but in the Middle East it is traditionally an offensive gesture. The same goes for the A-OK hand gesture, which is offensive in Latin America. Broni therefore warns that caution should be exercised when attempting to deploy emoji across different cultures, for fear of causing offense.

Then there are the emoji that no longer mean what they were originally intended to represent. The eggplant and peach emoji have become synonymous with parts of the human anatomy, rather than pieces of fruit. One study by Emojipedia and Prismoji in December 2016 found that out of a sample-size of 571 tweets using the peach emoji, only 7 percent referred to the actual fruit. More than a quarter of the tweets used the emoji in a sexual connotation.

Broni also organized Europe's first emoji spelling bee, held in Dublin in March. It was based upon the world's first emoji spelling bee, where contestants were challenged to swiftly "spell" a phrase or prompt using emojis, which took place at Emojicon in San Francisco in November 2016. Emojicon was a three-day convention hosted by EmojiNation which celebrated all things to do with emojis.