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Imagine one blog post causing such a ruckus that readers demanded a book.

That’s essentially what happened to Ella Frances Sanders when she created the post “11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures” in 2013.

Roughly 12 months later, her book “Lost in Translation” hit the book stores and was an instant hit. Amid considerable media attention, one of the better articles came from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings. As I wrote last December, “the storytelling in the book is industrial grade.”

For the back story, I interviewed Ella during a break as she toils on book number two (illustrations come from Ella as well).

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Lou:
As you know, I’m a huge fan of “Lost of Translation” and the storytelling in the book that blends words and visuals. How many languages do you speak? I’m curious about your research to find the words that made their way into the book. Wagiman isn’t exactly a high-profile language.

Ella:
And I’m proud to count you as a Lost in Translation fan! So, it might be worth mentioning at the beginning that all of this happened back to front — I didn’t happen to the book, the book happened to me. I’m not an academic, I hadn’t studied language, and I didn’t speak anything other than my mother tongue (I’m now learning German, and plan on Swedish a little further down the line). My actual research started with a couple of great books already written on the “untranslatable” topic, and then spread to the Internet. It’s hard to know what to believe on the Web sometimes, but given the incredibly short timescale I had to create everything, I needed to research (often obscure) things as accurately and efficiently as possible — the Internet was excellent for this. All in all, it’s been an incredibly steep learning curve, and I’m still adjusting.

 

L
From a marketing standpoint, did your publisher worry about the book title competing with the Bill Murray movie “Lost in Translation?”

E
Ha! I don’t think so. There were a couple of books with the same title too, but I think mine was different enough that it wasn’t going to be an issue. Is it terrible that I haven’t actually seen that film?

 

L
Bill Murray has some amusing scenes. It’s worth a rental. OK, one question that’s been on my mind since first reading the book. Did the Yiddish word “meshugah” rate consideration for the book? To define this word as “crazy” doesn’t quite capture the meaning; there’s really an undertone of affection. My grandmother from my mom’s side was big on that word at family events.

E
If I remember correctly “meshugah” was in my provisional list of 200+ words, and I can’t think exactly why it didn’t filter through to the final 52, but as there are enough of these words to fill several volumes, perhaps its day is yet to come.

 

L
I’ve read your original post “11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures” that started the hoopla. What was the inspiration for the post? Was the idea something that had been percolating in your mind for some time?

E
“Hoopla, exactly. I’d actually been noticing short lists of “untranslatable” words on a couple of well-known blogs, so when that particular Wednesday came around and I was asked to quickly write a blog post, it seemed like a good option. I didn’t think twice about adding the illustrations, that made complete sense to me—words and pictures are just meant to be together.

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L
It must have been exhilarating to see the attention triggered by the original post. I think reaching 2.5+ million readers qualifies as viral post. And you didn’t even need to include a cat video.

E
Exhilarating, surreal, plain weird. It was so hard to relate to it, because visualising those numbers of people is darn near impossible. I hate to think what would have happened if one of the 11 words had been cat-related.

 

L
What I find particularly unique is that artists don’t usually write and those who write struggle with the visual side. But you bring both together in your work. Even if you didn’t recognize it at the time, did this gift surface during your childhood?

E
Someone mentioned this to me recently and so I’ve been thinking about it a little more. As you say, it seems that some people who struggle to express themselves in words can produce amazing visual art, and writers often don’t have any desire to pick up a paintbrush, or really need to. For me, it’s very simple: I’ve always written, and I’ve always made a mess with crayons and paint and ink and whatever else I can get my paws on.

 

L
I enjoyed this passage in one of your recent posts:

“They don’t teach you how to behave when people can go into a bookstore and flick through the pages, the ones covered in you, your blood and sweat and tears and whatever else it took to finish this thing. They turn the unnumbered pages, looking inside you, yet not really knowing you at all. But that’s OK, because this is exciting, this is real.”

E
Thank you! I have less and less time to write, but sometimes (above is an example) there’s something I have to put down into words, otherwise I will not sleep.

 

L
What allows you to write and illustrate how you feel? It’s not easy.

E
Many things. Frustration, humans, necessity, beauty. Some days nothing, some days everything.

 

L
Any thoughts on storytelling in today’s world where people are pummeled with so much information 24 X 7.

E
Oh, many. We are fed on a steady (frantic) diet of images, news, more images, advertising. In general people aren’t very good at slowing down — reading more slowly, living more gently. I think storytelling is a brilliant way of reminding us we are human, because stories are all that we are. Where we have come from, and hopefully how we will stay together.

 

L
One final question. Can you share a teaser on your second book? Will it be something along the lines of “Return of Lost in Translation” or you headed a new direction?

E
I don’t think I can scream its title to the skies yet, but it is in a similar vein to Lost in Translation, yes. There will be words, there will be pictures, and it has languages from all over our small world.

 

L
Thanks a ton for taking the time.

E
You are most welcome.

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Win a Signed Copy of “Lost in Translation”

To enter a drawing for a signed copy of Ella’s debut book, leave a meaningful posted comment — something more relevant than “great post” — on the interview. After a couple of weeks, I’ll put all the names of those who posted comments into a hat and draw the lucky winner. Agency employees and relatives are not eligible (a little levity).

 


Comments

  • Gini Dietrich

    I laughed out loud at the “I hate to think what would have happened if one of the 11 words had been cat-related” comment. It’s funny because it’s true! I’m living under a rock because the original blog post hadn’t hit my stream … which means I also didn’t know about the book. That changes today! After I read Go Set a Watchman (against the counsel of my mom), I will read this.

    Reply
    • Lou Hoffman

      As a fellow word geek, you will love “Lost in Translation.” I’m also curious to hear your take on “Go Set a Watchman” after you read it. I’m still on the fence on whether it makes my nightstand for fun reading.

      Reply
  • Evelyn Lee

    I missed the entire West Wing series as it was a period of time when I didn’t own a TV; I still don’t. But, thanks to Netflix and a VPN subscription, I’m catching up. This post reminds me of this particular episode, “Han” (Season 5, Episode 4) where a North Korean pianist tried to defect. Meanwhile, America is negotiating a nuclear deal with N.Korea and President Bartlett and team has a difficult decision to make: Allow the pianist to defect and nuclear deal heads south.

    President Bartlett: I’m sorry to say I cannot let you defect. Do you understand me? You have to keep playing. There’s an important nuclear agreement being worked out. Do you understand my English?
    Pianist: I try to stay… You arrest me?
    PB: No.
    Pianist: You give me back to them.
    PB: No. Freedom means choice. You must decide which is the most responsible course.
    Pianist: You know Korean word, “Han”?
    PB: No.
    Pianist: It is this… this… (starts playing Chopin’s Prelude No 4 In E Minor Op 28)

    (Fast forward to last scene: President Bartlett and CJ Cregg post concert)
    PB: He didn’t realize what it was.
    CJ: What was, sir?
    PB: Freedom.
    CJ: You could’ve cancelled the concert.
    PB: There’s a Korean word “Han”. I looked it up. There is no literal English translation. It’s a state of mind. Of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet, still, there’s hope.
    CJ: Good night, Mr. President.
    PB: I’ve got a call from Geneva a few minutes ago. The negotiations are on hold. The North Koreans didn’t like the size of everyone’s flags at the table. (Sighs)

    Reply
    • Lou Hoffman

      Good stuff Evelyn. Thanks for taking the time to share the dialog. I love the fun and nuance around language.

      On the TV front, Heather and I just finished the last episode of Mad Men. Perhaps we should now turn our attention to West Wing.

      Reply
  • Marsha Collier

    This sounds like a fascinating book, words are my stock and trade. Looking forward to reading it.

    I’m with you, Lou on the use of meshugah – more so – its relation to “mishegas.” The origins and alternate meanings of words are also worth studying. T

    Thanks for an interesting read.

    Reply
    • Lou Hoffman

      Thanks for weighing in Marsha. I will definitely investigate the word “mishegas.” Now I’m curious. Perhaps potential fodder for a future book by Ella.

      Reply
  • Raf Stevens

    “I think storytelling is a brilliant way of reminding us we are human.” Home run! According to Harvard Business Review and Entrepreneur, storytelling is the best way to create an emotional connection. In other words, it is the most appropriate way to make your team achieve the goals you have in mind. The anthropologist Dr. Frances Harwood – a student of Margaret Mead – once asked a Sioux leader why people tell stories. He replied: “In order to become human beings.” Then she asked: “Aren’t we human already?” He replied, smiling. “Not everyone makes it.”
    (I know I am not allowed to say it, but I cannot resist: “great post”, Lou.)

    Reply
    • Lou Hoffman

      Great addition. Love the punch line to the Sioux anecdote.

      And appreciate the positive words on the post. I’m fortunate that Ella was open to sharing some back stories.

      Reply
  • Frank Strong

    I must be meshugah because I hadn’t heard of the book either. Looks like one for the coffee table, and a good pitch perhaps for those gift idea posts and articles come this December. Call me “magnata.” 🙂

    Reply
    • Lou Hoffman

      Definitely should make the gift-idea posts. If Ella’s publicist by any chance cruises through these comments, there’s a tactic worth considering. Appreciate the comment Frank.

      Reply
  • Steve Farnsworth

    What a wonderful interview. I remember reading and sharing the original post a few years ago. It was the kind of post that kicks you in the side of the head…in a nice way. I didn’t know about the book. That is now on my list. Thanks for doing this post, Lou! (And thank you, Ella!)

    Reply
    • Lou Hoffman

      Thanks though I’m not expecting “60 Minutes” to knock on my door because of my interviewing prowess. As for the book, I will personally see to it that “Lost In Translation” finds its way your night stand.

      Reply
  • Six Tips for a Blog Redesign by @LouHoffman Spin Sucks

    […] can see this design element in action in the recent interview with best-selling author Ella Frances […]

    Reply
  • Huw Sayer

    Thank you Lou – and Ella,

    I hadn’t heard about this book but will look it up (in one of our few remaining independent bookshops – Norwich is lucky to have a lovely one called the Bookhive). I wonder if Lost in Translation contains the Danish word hygge, which roughly translates as cosy but is apparently a whole way of life or state of mind. The reason I ask is because it resonates with the line about people not slowing down and living more gently (wise words).

    Best wishes from a ridiculously mild UK (14c at 7pm in mid-December) for a hygge Christmas and New Year.

    Huw
    @HuwSayer

    Reply
    • Lou Hoffman

      Thanks for the note Huw. Hopefully, the Bookhive carries “Lost in Translation” though the word “hygge” didn’t make the cut. I suspect it was a challenge for Ella to melt the list of potential words into something manageable. With that said, she’s working on a second book so who knows? Happy holidays!

      Reply

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