Translation and Universal Icons

June 2, 2016 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Translation and Universal Icons artSince the realization that we don’t all speak the same language, humans have been trying to come up with ways around language barriers. The best solution we have come up with so far is probably to depend on the skills of people trained in both languages who can act as a liaison between the two parties trying to communicate with each other. That means translators and interpreters have proven to be our best bet up until now.

However, what happens when translated materials or interpreters fail? What if you are working with an illiterate group of people or one whose language is so rare and endangered that hardly anyone is skilled enough to act as interpreter or translator? These were some of the questions that Otto Neurath, an Austrian philosopher, tried to grapple with when he began working on what would become “isotype”, which stands for “International System of Typographic Picture Education”.

Isotype was developed between 1925 and 1934, and though it hasn’t been used since probably the 1970s, the ideas and principles behind it have spurred other graphic designers to create similar movements and institutes. First of all, Neurath never meant for isotype to replace languages; he only wanted to provide an alternative to make communication easier in difficult situations. He thought of isotype as a “visual education” technique or method, to be accompanied by further verbal explanation.

One defining principle of the technique is to show bigger amounts by repeating the same pictogram rather than making the pictogram itself larger. Neurath believed this was a better way to get the message across, as the amount of pictograms could be counted, giving a better general idea for comparison.

Though it isn’t used anymore, isotype had a huge influence on how we visually depict data and other information in our society. Our own Department of Transportation worked closely with an organization heavily influenced by Neurath’s work, AIGA, in the 1970s. The result was standardized symbols that are still used today to mean anything from airport terminal to highway construction.

Despite its success evident in these icon systems adopted by so many countries, some designers have openly criticized isotype, saying it is too simplistic and not complex enough to portray certain kinds of nuanced data. However, that was not the point of isotype to begin with. The whole idea was to create a level playing field for anyone to understand basic universal concepts, regardless of their language and education level.

Besides the icons still used today, isotype lives on through various other medium. Recently, a Swiss company created a shirt that is printed with 40 different symbols that can be used to effectively communicate basic wants and needs without having to use an interpreter. The idea came to them while traveling in Vietnam and having to deal with a motorcycle problem with no knowledge of Vietnamese and no one around who knew enough English to help.

Another incarnation of isotype could be emojis, the little icons and faces used in messenger apps and social media networks. Though neither isotype-influenced t-shirts nor emojis are going to replace the need for translators and interpreters any time soon, they are certainly influencing the way the world communicates.

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Category: Business Translation

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