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  • Reinventing TranslationIcons and Dictionaries
  • Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch’ien (bio)

Xu Bing, Chinese language art, icons, Guo Xiaolu, Chinglish, weird English

It is often forgotten that [dictionaries] are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.

—Jorge Luis Borges, Prologue to “El otro, el mismo”

The dictionary has consistently been viewed fundamental to the act of translation, while icons are conceptual images that, in many cases, transcend the need for a dictionary and provide a form of automatic translation. The study of icons and dictionaries makes an apt pairing for analysis. At what stage in the interpretation of a linguistic unit does dictionary intervention become necessary? In thinking about when dictionary intervention becomes necessary, it is illuminating to first examine icons, whose presence implies the disposability of dictionaries, and second to determine the moment where dictionary intervention exposes an icon’s transition [End Page 37] to another kind of linguistic unit. Does the need for a dictionary indicate the possibility for a more capacious linguistic experience and a transition to the symbolic, or does the dictionary’s presence signal an evolutionary trend away from the graphic and spatial properties of language toward the conceptual? In connection with this, have icons been rendered anachronistic by symbols, or can they create a freestanding linguistic system? Or are icons simply precursors to richer linguistic elements, like characters or words? Finally, how can a dictionary’s format clarify how an icon functions?


While icons have proliferated with the Internet, they existed as the backbone of hieroglyphics centuries ago, and in recent decades have been used quite creatively by Internet start-ups. As both ancient and modern societies realized, cultural forces and repetition of use can reinforce the power of an icon. Instantaneous recognition of commands, directions, and other forms of communication in public spaces by visitors or nonreaders enables society to function smoothly; hence the presence of icons on road signs, toilets, airport spaces, and in places with a concentration of blind or deaf populations. Icons communicate meaning to an individual without his or her fluency in a specific or local linguistic culture. They have the capacity to moderate behaviors in global spaces as they have nonlocal specificity.

For anyone who imagines a global world, icons might represent a possibility for a universal language. Because design is visual, its evolution happens without the selective and often erratic pressure of verbal influences. Designs have circulated the globe without having to parallel-evolve with the frequently less consistent form of oral language. Designs by their very nature are more global presences than any particular language. But can icon systems replace extant languages and serve as universal languages? What do such a system’s shortcomings reveal about what a language needs to produce meaning?

Iconography’s advantages may succeed where translations do not because they provide immediate visuals that explicate their meaning more efficiently without generating cultural conflicts. In certain cultures icons offer an advantageous and intuitive solution, especially if the culture using [End Page 38]

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Figure 1.

My drawing is of Katsuichi Ito’s playful representation of Chinese characters. Ito adds design changes to characters to make them illustrate the characters’ meanings.

icons is accustomed to viewing writing units as characters rather than letters—the transition from characters to icons seems more seamless than that from letters to icons because characters utilize design in a fundamentally operative way. In fact, several artists have capitalized on the design component of characters and created linguistic units that lie on the border between characters and images. For example, in Lovely Language: Words Divide Images Unite, a Japanese artist manages to remake Chinese characters into icons. Katsuichi Ito’s humorous variations of Chinese characters (see Figure 1), in which he has visualized the meaning of a number of words in a pictographic manner, are accomplished by intimations of imagery imposed on extant Asian characters. While Ito’s work is compelling, it falls short of making a case for icons because characters, not icons, are still the arbiters of meaning. Still, in the age of the...


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pp. 37-64
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