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I interviewed author Ella Frances Sanders in 2015 after her book “Lost in Translation” had caused quite a sensation and landed on the NY Times bestselling list for four months. I remember thinking how improbable that a single blog post, “11 Untranslatable Words from Other Cultures” could morph into a bestseller.

Thanks to over 2 million views of the blog post, that’s exactly what happened (kudos to the enterprising book agent who saw the storytelling gold). As Ella puts it: “I didn’t happen to the book, the book happened to me.”

Her second book arrived on the scene a year later, “The Illustrated Book of Sayings: Curious Expressions from Around the World.”

Now comes her third book, “Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe” which officially debuts on April 16.

Those who touch business communications can take inspiration from her works which bring together fun with language, visual storytelling and hard-fought clarity.

With this in mind, I decided to republish the original interview with Ella which is just as relevant today.

And for the record, she has yet to tackle my favorite Yiddish word, “meshugah,” which conjures so much more than “crazy.”

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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.

 

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

Ella:
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?

 

Lou:
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.

Ella:
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.

 

Lou:
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?

Ella:
“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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Lou:
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.

Ella:
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.

 

Lou:
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?

Ella:
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.

 

Lou:
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.”

Ella:
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.

 

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

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

 

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

Ella:
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.

 

Lou:
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?

Ella:
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.

 

Lou:
Thanks a ton for taking the time.

Ella:
You are most welcome.

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