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Gerard Elson speaks to Ann Goldstein, translator of Elena Ferrante’s hugely successful Neapolitan novel series, about learning Italian later in life, and the difficulties and rewards of interpreting literature for English-speaking readers.

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Original illustration by Guy Shield

For the past 20 years, Elena Ferrante – the nom de plume of an anonymous Italian writer – has offered up vicious examinations of the intense, often vituperative, relationships that mushroom in patriarchy’s shadow.

Throughout all her work, but most famously in the suite of recent novels known collectively as the Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante turns her gimlet eye to splits between classes, sexes, generations and nationalities, and to female relationships in all their multiplicity: mother-daughter, mentor-student, friends. To find the furnace behind Ferrante’s fiction, one might look to Simone de Beauvoir, who in The Second Sex asked damningly, ‘How can a human being in a woman’s situation attain fulfilment?’

Ann Goldstein has been translating Ferrante’s attempts to answer this question for the past decade, vitriol thrillingly intact.

While the Anglosphere first encountered Ferrante via Goldstein’s translation of her second novel, The Days of Abandonment (2002, English translation 2005), ‘Ferrante fever’, as a popular hashtag puts it, is a more recent phenomenon. The Neapolitan novels, concerning the tempestuous friendship between Elena and Lila – who meet as girls in the gritty streets of postwar Naples and maintain an erratic yet deeply symbiotic, lifelong bond, until the latter vanishes – have captured the popular imagination in a way that makes the fuss surrounding the series’ closest analogue in contemporary letters, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle, seem wanner than a midwinter Scandinavian sky.

Originally published in Italian from 2011 to 2014, Goldstein’s translation of the series’ first book, My Brilliant Friend, came in 2012, continuing with The Story of a New Name in 2013 and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in 2014, before concluding in 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child. Ferrante fever is now at boiling point: Time named the novelist among its ‘100 Most Influential People’ in April of this year, acknowledging the impact she has made on the English-speaking consciousness.

Due to Ferrante’s insistence on preserving her anonymity, Goldstein has become the public face of the Neapolitan novels’ success, and is now more in demand than ever as a translator: at the time of writing, at least two new Goldstein translations will be published later this year.

A recent, noteworthy project has been In Other Words (2016), the first Italian-language book by the Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, moved to Rome in 2012 with her husband and children, and summarily renounced writing in English. In Other Words documents her efforts to pledge herself to the Italian language. (At one point, she refers to English as ‘a boyfriend I’d tired of, someone I’d left years earlier. He no longer appeals to me.’)

In its English publication, Lahiri’s original text is printed opposite Goldstein’s translation. The etymologically inclined can double their pleasure by cross-referencing the two women’s sentences, puzzling out certain words’ mutual Latin roots. Last year also saw the release of the three-volume Complete Works of Primo Levi, a project overseen by Goldstein, who contributed three new translations to the epic collection.

When not doubled over translations, Goldstein serves as head of the New Yorker’s copy department. We speak via Skype ahead of her visit to Australia.


KYD: Your career has had an interesting trajectory.

AG: I guess so! I started as a proofreader in the New Yorker’s copy department many, many years ago, in the mid-1970s. We have a very complicated copy department. I got to the top of the copy department, then I became the head of the copy department. I also have, and have always had, some writers whom I edit. I do several things there.

KYD: John Updike was an early charge of yours at the New Yorker.

AG: I edited his book reviews – I didn’t edit his fiction – starting in the late 1980s. In that period I also worked with [the critics] Andrew Porter and Arlene Croce, people like that. Now I work with other old stalwarts of the New Yorker: Janet Malcolm, [Ian] ‘Sandy’ Frazier, Claudia Roth Pierpont. But I also work with a lot of other writers, in the course of my various roles.

KYD: Translation aside, what are they?

AG: As I say, we have a complicated system of proofreaders. Each piece is assigned somebody called an ‘okayer’ who’s a sort-of super proofreader. They see the piece from a certain point onward through to production.

I don’t want to go into our entire system – it’s too complicated. Basically, the week that a piece is going to press, the okayer works on that piece with the editor, the fact-checker and the writer. I do that, too. In that way we all work with many of the writers. I often work with Adam Gopnik, and a few other people.

KYD: I’m beginning to understand why the New Yorker’s copy department is often referred to as ‘legendary’.

AG: If people are not used to it, they find it startling. Of course, the best writers love it.

KYD: You didn’t begin learning Italian until you were in your late 30s, when you arranged for a group of your New Yorker colleagues to take classes in the office.

AG: I wanted to read Dante in Italian. So I managed to convince some of my colleagues that they also wanted to learn Italian and read Dante. We had a class in the office, taught in succession by the two daughters of a Dante professor at Columbia University, Maristella Lorch. My colleague Mary Norris was studying Greek at the time with one of the Lorches. So we arranged first one and then the other of the Lorch sisters to come and teach us. We studied Italian grammar for a year, and then we started Dante. We must have spent three years reading Dante. We read all of The Divine Comedy, we didn’t just read Inferno!

KYD: How do you go from reading Dante in the original language as a hobby to becoming a professional translator?

AG: There were a few steps, all rather accidental. Firstly, I kept studying Italian more seriously than my colleagues. I was just more interested.

Then, sometime in the early 1990s, Bob Gottlieb, who was the then-editor of the New Yorker, was given a book from the artist Saul Steinberg by a friend of his. [Steinberg] had studied architecture before the Second World War in Milan; he then got out. The close friend of his was a writer and architect named Aldo Buzzi.

Saul sent Buzzi’s Italian-language book to Bob. I don’t know what he thought was going to happen. Since Bob knew I read in Italian, he gave me the book and said, ‘I need to write a nice letter to Saul’s friend. Can you read this and tell me what it’s about, so I know what to say?’

I read the book and liked it, so I decided to try to translate a part of it. Which I did. I gave my translation to Bob, and he published it. That was the beginning of my career as a translator.

The second book I translated was the novel Petrolio by [Pier Paolo] Pasolini (1997), which I happen to be re-involved with right now. It was unfinished when Pasolini died, and wasn’t even published in Italian until 17 years after his death. It’s this crazy book, completely nuts and incredibly complicated. Because it’s incomplete, and because I wasn’t very experienced, I was fumbling in the dark. But that was a profound experience. It was like studying Pasolini, really. I tried to learn everything about him.

‘No one had tried to capture the dialect of the Roman underclass before.’

Two or three years ago, an Italian writer who had worked at the Pasolini Foundation [in Rome] in the early 1990s wrote a book about Petrolio [Qualcosa di scritto or Something Written]. Which I’m now translating! It’s an amazing thing. I think maybe five people in the world have read Petrolio, and maybe three people will read this book. The author is Emanuele Trevi. It’s a pretty fascinating book.

KYD: You’re recently been involved with another Pasolini translation.

AG: I’m also re-translating his novel Ragazzi di vita, which we’re calling The Street Kids. It was Pasolini’s first novel, from 1956.

KYD: How does Pasolini’s writing compare to Ferrante’s? Given the influence of neorealismo (Italian neo-realism) on his early cinematic work, I would imagine that dialect must play an important role in his prose of this period, too.

AG: This is the interesting thing about Ferrante: she doesn’t actually write in dialect. She only uses a word here and there. Instead, she says, he or she said, in dialect, and then goes on to write the dialogue in Italian. She doesn’t use it – fortunately for the translator! Pasolini, though, does write in dialect. The book is about a group of Roman street kids. The narrator writes in regular Italian, but when the kids are speaking – and there are many conversations between the kids – these are written in Roman dialect. Pasolini presents a much bigger problem in that sense than Ferrante.

KYD: How do you render the Roman dialect in English?

AG: By trying to make it as colloquial as I can. I can’t see myself bringing in some kind of American, or British, equivalent. I don’t know, you could write it in a Brooklyn accent, or with some kind of twang. It just seems ridiculous, and sounds fake. Of course you’re losing something, but then again, you’re losing something anyway. When Ragazzi di vita came out in Italy, no one had tried to capture the dialect of the Roman underclass before. It was scandalous, and scandalous in a way that it would not be today.

KYD: How fluently do you speak Italian?

AG: My spoken Italian is not that fluent. I’ve never lived there – not yet, anyway. I visit for periods of time, but I haven’t been able to spend the amount of time there, immersed in the language, that would enable me to be a fluent speaker. Unlike Jhumpa Lahiri. She just decided to do it – to go and live in Italy.

KYD: What was it like translating the Italian-language work of a writer whose native tongue is English?

AG: It was very stressful; she’s a great writer in English. I wasn’t going to try to write like Jhumpa Lahiri writes in English, because her Italian is not like her English. To know that somebody was going to read my translation of their work who would have a depth of understanding of English that I wouldn’t normally expect of a writer writing in another language… It was stressful. It was stressful to have my writing be read and judged by Jhumpa Lahiri!

At first I thought it was ridiculous. Why wouldn’t she do it herself? But eventually, it made sense to me. She’s since said that it was a shock to her to read the English translation: it wasn’t her. It wasn’t her voice as she knew it. She found that strange.

KYD: Did you work closely together?

AG: No, but we worked together well. She had things she wanted to change and, of course, that was fine. In some ways, it’s a luxury to be translating a writer whom you can ask, ‘Did you mean this, or this?’ and get a detailed response. That was great.

KYD: Were you able to put these kinds of questions to Ferrante while you were working on her books?

AG: If I had a question, I would write to the editors and they would write to her. Once or twice I’ve communicated with her, but not very much. I believe she reads the translations. I think she reads English but doesn’t write in it. She has been sent questions in English for interviews, but she responds in Italian.

In the beginning, when I first started translating Ferrante in 2004 with The Days of Abandonment, she was still anonymous, of course, though her public profile was much smaller. Since then, she’s given many email interviews, and now there’s my translation of Frantumaglia, coming out in November, which is a collection of these interviews, along with letters and other things.

KYD: Do you now find yourself in the strange position of acting as spokesperson for this body of work whose living creator you don’t know?

AG: I didn’t become a representative of the books until the third volume of the Neapolitan series was published. That’s when they became extremely popular [amongst English-language speakers]. By then, people started to want a face, a person to associate with the books somehow. And, by default, that was me. I certainly didn’t expect to ever become this public a person myself.

KYD: As we’ve said, it has now been more than 10 years since you began your association with Ferrante. What’s it like spending so long in the world of psychologically unstable narrators and noxious men, themes that are common to each of her books? Is it hard to leave at the desk?

AG: It’s really only felt that way with the Neapolitan books. Firstly, because each of those is twice as long any of her first three books. They were also published at a rate of one per year.

The earlier books were more spaced out. It’s really only been the last five years that I’ve been living in that world. It’s a very intense place to be! [Laughs.]

One, of course, sometimes wants to escape it. Though when I finished work on the third volume, I was struck by the sense that, suddenly, something was missing from my life. I was used to having these characters in my head all the time. By that point, I felt like they were living there – or I was living with them. Their lives are so full of incident, and there are so many characters whom you get to know so well.

KYD: Can we discuss the practical side of translation? You’re given the book. Are you annotating heavily upon your first reading? Does the translation process begin this early?

AG: To use the example of the Neapolitan novels, I read My Brilliant Friend first. But I read pretty quickly, partly because I knew I was about to return to read it slowly. Usually, my first draft is written quickly. I don’t stop and try to solve all of the problems.

I didn’t have time to read the other three books before I started my work. The first drafts of these translations were written as I was reading the novels in Italian for the first time: I was reading, then typing – typing fast, but reading slowly. It was a very involving experience, thinking about the books in two ways simultaneously: as a story, and as a challenge. I did a lot of drafts.

KYD: So you’re typing into a word processor. Do you then print out your drafts to see how they read on the page?

AG: I do. Usually, I do two drafts on the computer before I print it out and read it on paper, mark it up. Then I do another draft, maybe two, on the computer. It depends on the book and on the amount of time that I have.

KYD: How long did you have to work on the three remaining Neapolitan novels after My Brilliant Friend?

AG: It was probably three to five months per book.

KYD: That’s surprisingly few.

AG: I know. To contrast, I spent three years working on Petrolio! [Laughs.] Then again, there wasn’t such a [strict] deadline for that. Nobody was waiting to read it!

KYD: Were the Neapolitan deadlines so tight due to the success of My Brilliant Friend?

AG: Because the books form a tetralogy, the publisher had always wanted to release one book per year. So there was that, but the deadlines were also partly my fault, because I had other commitments.

Deadlines are always difficult. You always feel like, ‘If I only had a little more time…’

KYD: Is there anything in those books that you genuinely wish you’d had more time to finesse?

AG: There’s nothing particular. Although, last fall, there was a program at Symphony Space in New York City where two actors [Amy Ryan and Zoe Kazan] read two chapters from the books. Of course, it was shocking to hear it read. They were reading my English! Some of it seemed good, but other parts made me wonder, ‘Oh, why didn’t I do that, or that?’ Just a little word, here or there. You always feel that there’s some refinement you might have made with one more reading.

‘Deadlines are always difficult. You always feel like, “If I only had a little more time…”’

Then again, maybe not. There’s also the danger of second-guessing yourself too much, of redoing things that don’t need to be redone. Although that’s probably true of any kind of writing.

KYD: Actors inflecting your words, delivering them for the ear. It’s another kind of translation.

AG: It was interesting. I know some people who read their translations out loud as they work. If I had more time, maybe I would try doing that.

KYD: Have you read or heard the Neapolitan novels read aloud in Italian?

AG: I’ve occasionally read them aloud in Italian, at a few presentations. And of course, they sound good. Italian is a beautiful language. It’s very aurally expressive: it’s flowing, and a pleasure to hear spoken.

One thing Italian has that English does not have is the ability to add suffixes that change the intensity of a word: diminutives or intensifiers. By adding a suffix, you add a nuance to the word.

Here’s an example. Most people know bravo. But then there’s bravissimo: super-bravo! Or another: in the Neapolitan books, there’s the word stradone, which is the large version of the word strada, or street.

On this, I encountered a page or two in one of the Ferrante books containing three or four –issimo words. Of course, in English nobody would write, ‘very often, he went very quickly to the very big, very crowded supermarket’.

Ferrante did not use them all in one sentence like this. But it’s not unusual in Italian to see a few –issimo words used closely together. It’s a way of adding emphasis which, if used in English, would seem much heavier.

KYD: What can we expect from Frantumaglia?

AG: Some of it has been published in other places, like the 2015 Paris Review interview [from the Paris Review’s Art of Fiction No. 228, Issue 212].

One of the most interesting sections is Ferrante’s correspondence with the director Mario Martone, about Nasty Love, the movie version of Troubling Love  [1992; English translation 2006]. She sent him very detailed notes on the screenplay. Then, in some of the interviews, she talks about why she remains anonymous. A few of the reasons have changed over the years, but she’s sticking to it.

Then there’s a long piece called ‘La frantumaglia’. It’s very personal, I think; she talks about her childhood. There are also some outtakes from The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love, a couple of little episodes and her reasons for not including them. I’m curious to see what people will make of it.

KYD: Why do you think people have rallied around the Neapolitan books?

AG: I think the emotions and the relationships of the characters speak to people. We all have mothers, we all have siblings and friends, or partners of some kind. And she really digs into these relationships – especially the relationship between Elena and Lila, the two central friends. That’s unusual; to make the friendship between two people the basis of a book, and to depict a friendship between two women is particularly rare.

‘[Ferrante] describes things that we can’t bear to describe to ourselves.’

Friendship between women can be intense and involve many contradictory emotions. Ferrante doesn’t hold back when examining these emotions, nor the ways the two women act toward each other throughout the different phases of their lives. She describes things that we can’t bear to describe to ourselves. These things are important to think about.

That doesn’t make them sound like a particularly fun read…

KYD: They’re not fun reads, which is why their runaway success has been so surprising.

That said, it becomes less surprising when you consider the pleasures they offer the reader who’s willing to mire themselves in their world. There’s the simple pleasure of a gripping story told at a good clip. And also the pleasure of identification, which you’ve mentioned. Having a writer of Ferrante’s great intellect parse these darker, even shameful, facets of our personalities – and these are facets we all share – can be intoxicating.

I think the ways in which the Neapolitan books both dramatise and interrogate the lives of women under patriarchy also accounts, in part, for their popular appeal. Would you agree?

AG: There’s the feminist question, but also the class question. In Italy, there’s a big difference between the south and the north. The south is always considered to be poor, uneducated. You see that in the books when Elena goes to Pisa, and then later, when she lives in Florence. She still feels like she has to hide the fact that she’s from the south: she has to learn how to speak properly, how to behave properly, dress properly. That class disparity still exists in Italy, although perhaps less so today. Similarly, the south is more patriarchal than the north.

Certainly, many Italian women are successful. I guess it’s like many other places: even though it’s assumed that women are going to be independent and have careers, there’s still some sense that the men are in charge. I think that’s true of everywhere. Of course, when Donald Trump gets elected, things are going to get worse for everyone.

KYD: Trump’s appeal seems to stress just how rigidly durable these social structures are. And they’re the very structures Ferrante has been attacking in her fiction, in one way or another, all along.

AG: That’s right. We all have a long way to go.