Editors who pitch picture books at international fairs are accustomed to having to explain the text to foreign publishers in a language they both understand, but for Candlewick’s Liz Bicknell, selling the rights to Carson Ellis’s Caldecott Honor book Du Iz Tak? ultimately meant translating the entire text—into English—for the first time.

“I’ve been in children’s publishing for 25 years and this has never happened to me before,” said Bicknell, the book’s editor. “You don’t think there’s much left to learn, but there always is.”

The story, nominally about the life cycle of a plant experienced by the nattily dressed insects that live around it, is written entirely in dialogue, in a “bug language” invented by Ellis. A fly points to a sprout poking up from the ground and asks, “Du iz tak?” Its companion replies, “Ma nazoot.”

The book attracted strong interest from foreign publishers, and has sold into 11 territories so far. But Bicknell said the job of translating the text posed unique challenges. First problem: some of the words Ellis invented for her bugs were actual words in other languages. “Tak,” for instance, is the Swedish word for “thank,” although the spelling— “tack” —differs slightly.

It also became clear that many publishers didn’t realize that Ellis’s dialogue was more than nonsense. The first attempt at translating the text into French raised a red flag for the author. “I used ‘ribble’ for ladder and I used it twice to help a reader intuit what it meant,” Ellis recalled. “But in the first French version there was no repeated word. So we asked about that and they were surprised to learn that my gibberish actually meant something.”

So Carson wrote out her text for the first time—in English. “We gave them the translation and they completely rewrote their own version,” Ellis said.

Bicknell said it became clear that every new edition would need the same foundational guidance. “We realized that in order for the Chinese or the Scandinavian or the Dutch publishers to create a translation, they needed to know what English words Carson had in mind, as an interim step to creating their own bug language,” she said. “Sentence construction is different in other languages and it’s really important that the gibberish phrases scan because that’s part of how a reader figures out what the bugs are saying, and working out what they are saying is part of the fun.”

It’s a Small World

The author originally conceived of the book with her hands in dirt. “I’m a big gardener and initially I wanted to write something about growing plants and the life cycle of a plant, showing the different attention a gardener pays to a plant as it grows from something very small to a wild tangle of leaves,” she said. “But then I thought, that’s probably going to be boring for kids.”

Instead, Ellis cycled back to her own childhood interests. “As a kid one thing I was really interested in was that microcosmic world that’s going on around plants, and I thought other kids would also be interested in that. I really wanted it to work on different levels.”

She submitted a manuscript with text only. “The words were all gibberish and there were no sketches,” she recalled. “Just a lot of illustration notes like, ‘Two damsel flies approach a small plant.’ ”

Bicknell didn’t flinch: “I was super-charmed right from day one,” she said. “To me it was one of those texts that was fun to read, more like a theatrical performance done by a parent. The words are so much fun to say. And, honestly, if you think about it, picture books are full of words their audience doesn’t understand at first.”

Bicknell edited without an English translation—it only occurred to her after several rounds that there was a deliberate logic to the bugs’ seemingly nonsensical speech.

“I had it translated in my head, but I hadn’t written it down,” Ellis said, “so when Liz asked, ‘Does this actually mean anything?’ I said ‘Yes, absolutely.’ ”

The book’s title—What Is That? in English—had to be changed in all its foreign-language iterations. Dutch bugs ask Kek Iz Tak?; their Portuguese cousins query Ke Iz Tuk? In Germany, bugs who want to know What Is That? wonder Wazn Teez?

Although she can’t pronounce the title, the Chinese edition is Ellis’s favorite. “It’s just so beautiful and the fact that it is written in Chinese characters makes it even more inscrutable,” she said. “I don’t speak Chinese so these bugs really do seem to be speaking a language I truly don’t understand.”