CBC Radio

Ann Goldstein on the art of translating for mysterious Elena Ferrante

Guests: Ann Goldstein

The Current
Ann Goldstein on the art of translating for mysterious Elena Ferrante

00:00 23:38

AMT: Hello. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti and you’re listening to The Current.

[Music: Theme]

AMT: Still to come, the fight for safe private toilets is underway in South Africa where a woman was murdered on her way to use a public bathroom. We’ll talk about the link between sanitation and sexual assault in South Africa. But first, this is perhaps the closest you will come to hearing from Italy’s great mysterious storyteller, Elena Ferrante.


I did it because I believed that she was very much a public figure. And when millions of books are bought by readers, in a way I think readers acquire the right to know something about the person who created the work. I personally think that. But most importantly, I believe that Ferrante and her publishers agreed with this point of view. Her self-declared autobiographical Writer’s Journey, Frantumaglia, which is being published right now next month in the US, was presented to the public as her answer to the legitimate request of detailed information about her.

AMT: Italian journalist Claudio Gatti drew the wrath of literary fans when he sought to unmask the true identity of the best-selling Italian author who goes by the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. His findings pointed to Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator. Her editors deny it. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels is wildly popular worldwide with what borders on a cult following. But Elena Ferrante has wanted no part of the limelight. She insists on remaining anonymous. Her true identity has mattered little to her readers, who say they’ve become addicted to her tales of the rich decades-long friendship of Lenu and Lila that begins in Naples of the 1950s. If you have read any of Ms. Ferrante’s work in translation, then you will be acquainted with the words of my next guest. Ann Goldstein is the English translator of all of Ms. Ferrante’s books. She is an editor at the New Yorker magazine. She is often the public face of the Neapolitan series. Elena Ferrante’s most recent work is Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a collection of letters by and interviews with the reclusive writer to give us a window into her thoughts on her characters and her writing process. And Ann Goldstein joins me in our Toronto studio. Welcome.


AMT: Are you as—you must be as in love with these books as the rest of us are.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I am. Yes, I love these books. All of her books, in fact.

AMT: I have to tell you by the time I came to the fourth of the Neapolitan quartet, I started to read it very slowly and even put it down for a while because I didn’t want to let those girls go. They were just—you become entwined in their story.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, I was very worried when I was reading the fourth novel because I couldn’t—well, working on the fourth novel because I was—I couldn’t, I didn’t, couldn’t figure out how she was going to end it. I knew it was the last of the novels of the—originally actually she had planned it to be three and then she realized she couldn’t do what she wanted to do and so it became four. But I just kept thinking how is she going to end this in a satisfying way? And I can’t say that I slowed down because I was under pressure of time to get the translation done. But I thought it was beautifully and satisfyingly ended.

AMT: When did you first get introduced to the works of Elena Ferrante?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: In 2004, I think the Italian publisher, Sandro and Sandra Ferri who had this publishing company, E/O, Edizioni E/O in Rome, they were her Italian publishers and they had decided that they wanted to publish books in English and to open up essentially an American branch of their publishing company called Europa Additions. And The Days of Abandonment, which was actually Ferrante’s second novel, was the first book that they decided to publish and they looked for a translator and somehow they found me.

AMT: And how did they find you? You have a day job. [chuckles]

ANN GOLDSTEIN: [chuckles] Well, I had been translating for about 10 years and I think they got my name off the PEN website. They had asked about three or four translators to do samples and they chose me for which I was very grateful because as soon as I started reading The Days of Abandonment, I thought I have to translate this book.

AMT: And so when you got to the quartet—so you were translating it as she went along. You didn’t like—

ANN GOLDSTEIN: The quartet. Yeah. More or less, yes, Well, she had—yes, that’s true because she hadn’t finished even when she—I think she says in probably in Frantumaglia, that she had this idea for the quartet. She originally thought it was just going to be a very short novel. Then she realized it was going to be a somewhat longer novel and she still thought it would be a single book, but her publishers dissuaded her. They said you can’t. It was clearly going to be big. I mean long, that is to say. She said I think that she had ideas about certain points, certain plot points or certain things that she wanted to develop but she didn’t really know the details. And so as she was writing, the details came to her or she made them up, whatever. But anyway, I forget where I was going with this.

AMT: When it comes to translating the novels, what kind of pressure do you feel?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, there’s time pressure of course. I mean there was with the Neapolitan novels because she wanted to—the publisher wanted to bring them out one a year and they weren’t really finished until they practically they were published in Italian. So there was time pressure. But yeah, I mean as readers became more in love with the books, there was pressure to do it well, to do it—I mean there’s always pressure to do it well, to do the translation well. I’m not sure what else you mean by pressure.

AMT: Well, yeah, and you know there’s so much talk of the masterful prose, of just the way the words just exist in our minds. I don’t even want to say on the page because when I read things like that, they come into my mind. I mean maybe just help us understand your process because you see that in Italian and you must then move that into another language.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I mean it’s a interesting process. I mean it’s—I usually—well, usually I’ve read the book first. In the case of the second, the last three of those novels, I actually was translating as I was reading. And so I felt that I was experiencing them sort of in real time. But usually I read things pretty quickly. I mean I translate the first draft very quickly and then I go back and I revise and I revise. And often I try to stay close to the text basically and sometimes I move away from it and then I—with these novels, I very often went back to the original translation because somehow I had captured something there, I thought, that was closer to the Italian. I mean the Italian, it’s very dense. It’s kind of a run-on language and actually English readers, many English readers have commented on that, on the sort of run-on sentences. I mean Italian sort of, it accommodates the run-on sentence more easily than English does. The prose is a little bit more—the syntax is a little bit more flexible. So capturing that, the intensity and the density of her sentences in English was sometimes a challenge.

AMT: So and you said you sometimes went back to the original, your original translation, almost like your visceral feeling as you translated first time around.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yes. And actually, Ferrante in the Frantumaglia, in some of these interviews, she talks about how she doesn’t like beautiful writing. She likes ugly writing because the ugly writing is what conveys the intensity of what she wants to convey. And I think that sometimes that was the case with the translation too, that you know it didn’t want it to be too smooth.

AMT: Well, I have more questions about the translation. But do you know her? Have you met her?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: No, no. As far as I know, the only people who know who she is are her publishers. And I would say that, just to go back to the Gatti that you played before, I mean she did not present Frantumaglia as an autobiography. I mean it wasn’t meant to be an autobiography. It was meant to be sort of a collection of well, her letters, of sort of a window on to the writer’s process, not into anything personal.

AMT: It’s interesting because he’s again trying to put motive and personality into the book and that’s exactly what she’s trying to keep away.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yes, exactly.

AMT: Like herself out of it.


Continue reading


‘Be Silent, Recover My Strength, Start Again’: In Conversation with Elena Ferrante

Speaking with the author of the Neapolitan Quartet novels and Frantumaglia about why readers have trouble with challenging portrayals of women, the supposed sin of narcissism, and smoking cigarettes.

I interviewed Elena Ferrante by email over the summer of 2016. This was about a month before the New York Review of Books published a long article by an Italian journalist alleging her “true” identity. She read my questions (which were written in English) and wrote her responses in Italian. Her replies were translated by Ann Goldstein, the English translator of Ferrante’s many books. I had been hesitant about conducting this interview when I was offered the opportunity, for I admire Ferrante’s reticence. Yet, debating it with myself, it seemed it would be a mistake not to ask this great writer questions, if I had the chance.

For those who are unaware, Ferrante is one of the most celebrated contemporary writers in the world, and rightly so. In 2011, she released the first of a series of four books (each around 350 pages in length) called The Neapolitan Quartet, which follow two female friends from the time of their childhood in Naples in the 1950s to the present day. The books thrillingly unmask the consciousness and social situation of these women, tracing the complex bonds and political struggles of several generations of families in twentieth-century Naples. Reading these books, I felt a keen loss over the many great books that had not been written by women down through time; Ferrante made me long for even more first-rate writers to map (and to have mapped) the many underwritten aspects of the female experience. To me, the books have a distinctly female point of view: the point of view not of the natural victor but of one who has to fight for the right to observe.

Her three earlier and shorter novels (Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter, published in Italian between 1992 and 2006) are like tinctures of the quartet: exquisitely precise and intensely felt, they magnify moments in a life and are written in a style and language that calls to mind few others—perhaps Clarice Lispector, for being just as brutal, penetrating, and heartbreaking. Ferrante’s books are profoundly contemporary while giving the same satisfaction as many nineteenth-century novels, as if Ferrante were not living in a landscape of busily competing media, but rather writing in a world where the quiet of readers can be taken for granted. She is formally risk-taking yet is a masterful storyteller. Her books rush you along in a swell of complicity, curiosity, feeling, and suspense. I cannot think of a single person I know who has not read Ferrante only to fall helplessly into her world. She has collapsed the gap between the sort of books that writers feel awe for and that the reading public can’t get enough of—the rarest thing.

Speaking personally, as a writer who has engaged in the various publicity and marketing strategies that many of us allow, I was interested to talk to Ferrante about how she knew from the beginning that she wanted to avoid the performance of self. I wanted to ask about how she—as a great illustrator of the human condition—has navigated such experiences as motherhood, discipleship, and rebellion. Naturally, I was curious to know how she wrote her books, but I didn’t ask too many craft questions because I know that for any writer, composition is ultimately a mystery.

Ferrante has managed, for decades, that difficult and enviable thing: the maintenance of total privacy as a human being, along with total openness as a creator through her art. I, and many of her devoted readers, hope there is even more of that art still to come. We are so grateful she took the time to do this interview, although as you will see, she doesn’t consider this an interview at all.


Sheila Heti: You’ve remarked that you forget the books you read. Do you think there’s some connection between being a reader who forgets (I am too), and being able to create and write? Maybe forgetting is a subconscious kind of remembering that allows writers to recombine what they’ve taken from literature, in ways that are particular to them.

Elena Ferrante: Yes, that’s probably the case. I do forget, I forget especially the books I’ve loved very much. I have an impression of them, I have a feeling for them, but to discuss them I would have to reread them. If I had a clear memory that allowed me to cite passages, point out crucial moments, any attempt at writing of my own would seem to me lost at the start. Imagination is said to be a function of memory. I prefer to think that it’s a function of nostalgia. We compose stories knowing very well that we are the last to arrive. And yet every time it seems to us that we are returning to the moment when the first human being, with nothing but the truth of his experience and the urge to reinvent it at every step, began to tell a story.

You once said, “I tend to edit and then inevitably revert to the original draft, when I see what I’ve lost by editing.” I agree: there is always some power in the way a person first catches the words on the page. Can you talk about your instinct to keep the rawness with your instinct to clean up? If you often prefer the first draft to the edited draft, what does your editing process consist of?

I detest vapid, sugary, sentimental tones and I try to get rid of them. I detest refinement when it cancels out naturalness, and so I look for precision without going too far. I could continue like that, with a fine list of intentions, but it’s just talk. In fact I move by instinct, a spontaneous movement that, if I put it in order, becomes merely a banal guidebook. So let’s say that, pulled this way and that by countless readings, by varied layers of taste, by inclinations and idiosyncrasies, I generally aim at what seems to me perfection. Then, however, perfection suddenly seems an insane excess of refinement and I return to versions that seem effective precisely because they are imperfect.

Picasso said the new work of art always looks ugly at first, especially to its creator. Did you find your books ugly in the way Picasso meant?

Yes, certainly yes, but not because I feel the book as new; rather, because I feel it as mine, tarnished by contact with my experience.

So much contemporary female writing is accused of narcissism. Have you escaped the charge of narcissism, or have you received it? I’d like to bind this question to your comments about women who “practice a conscious surveillance on themselves” who before were “watched over by parents, by brothers, by husbands, by the community.” You have written that women who practise surveillance on themselves are the “heroines of our time,” but it’s precisely these women—real and fictional—who are accused of the sin of narcissism, as if a woman looking at herself (rather than being looked at by a man) was insulting to everyone. How do you understand this charge?

I’ve never felt narcissism to be a sin. It seems, rather, a cognitive tool that, like all cognitive tools, can be used in a distorted way. No, I think it’s necessary to be absolutely in love with ourselves. It’s only by reflecting on myself with attention and care that I can reflect on the world. It’s only by turning my gaze on myself that I can understand others, feel them as my kin. On the other hand it’s only by assiduously watching myself that I can take control and train myself to give the best of myself. The woman who practises surveillance on herself without letting herself be the object of surveillance is the great innovation of our times.

Your books resist the pressure to be “correct” in a feminist sense. For me, I have noticed that often it’s women who react most negatively to portrayals of women that are “un-feminist.” Why do you think such readers have a hard time with portrayals of women that conflict with their ideals? Do they feel the female author is somehow betraying them?

“Correctness” has never been a concern of mine when I write. Nor have I ever felt, in telling a story, that I had to adapt the story or the character to the demands of a cultural alignment, to the urgent needs of political battles even if I share them a hundred percent. Literature is not the sounding board of ideologies. I write always and only about what it seems to me I know thoroughly, and I would not bend the truth of a story to any higher necessity, not even to some ethical imperative or some prudent consistency with myself.

You’ve said, “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard—out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness—we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.” This is very striking to me. What does it mean to you to lower your guard? Women are taught to give ourselves fully, with great trust, in love… but you think we shouldn’t?

It seems to me risky to forget that no one gave us the freedoms we have today—we took them. For that very reason they can at any moment be taken away again. So just that, we mustn’t ever lower our guard. It’s wonderful to give oneself fully to another, we women know how to do it. And we should continue. It’s a serious mistake to retreat, giving up the marvelous feelings we’re capable of. Yet it’s indispensable to keep alive the sense of self. In Naples, certain girls who showed the marks of beatings would say, even with pleased half smiles, He hits me because he loves me. No one can dare to hurt us because he loves us, not a lover, not a friend, not even children.

You’ve said, “I feel such a sense of unease and distrust these days that I can no longer write even half a word without fearing that, once published, it might be distorted or purposely taken out of context and used in a malicious way.” I think this is something many writers feel. Have you found a solution for it?

Yes. Be silent, recover my strength, start again.

Do you smoke cigarettes?

Until a few years ago I smoked a lot, then I stopped abruptly. I tell you this because what is written while smoking seems better than that which fears for its health. But we have to learn to do well without necessarily doing harm to others and ourselves.

Do you keep copies of the books you have written and published in the room where you write?


You’ve written, “A novel about today that is engaging and full of characters and events should be a novel about and against the suspension of disbelief.” How does your work avoid the necessity of the suspension of disbelief, and do you find too many novels are written today that require the suspension of disbelief? If readers are trained to suspend their disbelief, are they less effective political actors on their own behalf?

Those words of mine were a political metaphor. I was referring to what seems to me to have happened in recent decades: the transformation of citizens into a public involved in representations of the world that are skillfully constructed in order to suspend incredulity. The citizen risks acting like a fan, an enthusiastic consumer of media narratives that are plausible but deceptive, because those narratives are not the truth but have the appearance of truth. In other words, we have to return to not believing what they tell us. We have to relearn to distinguish between truth and verisimilitude.

Why do you do interviews? How do you decide which interviews to participate in? Are there rules you follow? Why not let the books exist without the interviews? Are you ever going to stop doing interviews altogether? Why not now?

I no longer follow any rule. The main thing is that it doesn’t seem to me that I’m giving interviews. You think that we’re doing an interview? I don’t. In an interview the person being interviewed entrusts his body, his facial expressions, his eyes, his gestures, the way he speaks—an often-improvised speech, inconsistent, poorly connected—to the writing of the interviewer. Something that I can’t accept. What we are doing resembles, rather, a pleasant correspondence. You think about it and write me your questions; I think about it and write my answers. It’s writing, in other words, and I like/am fond of all occasions for writing. In the past it seemed to me that I was unable to come up with answers suitable for publication. Either they were too succinct, a yes or a no, or a short question became an occasion for reflection, and I wrote pages and pages. Now I think I’ve learned something but not necessarily. So no, I don’t give interviews, to anyone, but I find these exchanges in writing increasingly useful—for myself, naturally. It’s writing that should be placed beside that of the books like a fiction not very different from literary fiction. I’m telling you about myself, but you too—a writer, I read one of your books in Italian, which I loved—with your questions are telling me about yourself. I talk about myself, as do you, as a producer of writing. I do it truthfully, addressing not only you and our possible readers but also myself, or at least that substantial part of myself that considers it completely senseless to waste so much time writing and needs reasons that justify the waste. In short, your questions help me to invent myself as an author, to give form, that is, to this unstable, elusive part that I myself know little or nothing about. Something that I imagine has happened to you too, as an author, when you have formulated the questions.

In Magda Szabó’s The Door, Emerence—the intelligent cleaning-woman with a strong inner code of behaviour, who keeps house for the intellectual woman-writer protagonist—reminds me a bit of Lila, and Szabó’s protagonist is reminiscent of your Elena. Yet Emerence is somehow the superior of the pair, as is Lila. Is there something in the figure of the intellectual woman writer that pales in comparison (from the perspective of the woman writing) to the (comparatively) uneducated woman who yet knows and understands the world? Why do so many female writers demean the “intellectual” female figures we create? Do we still not truly value female literary work, women who work with their minds? Is it a kind of self-loathing? Why do we often portray intellectual women as having lost more than they have gained?

You pose a very interesting question; I have to think about it. Why do we invent cultivated, intelligent women and then lower their level or even their pleasure in life? Who knows. Maybe because we’re still incapable of a convincing portrayal of female intelligence. We haven’t completely set aside the literary model that represented us at the side of a superior man who would take care of us and our children. Thus, though we have now acquired the sense of our inner richness and our intellectual autonomy, we portray them in a minor key, as if our capacity to produce ideas and culture were a presumptuous exaggeration, as if, even having something extra, we ourselves didn’t really believe in it. From here, probably, comes the literary invention of secondary female figures who possess that something extra in themselves, remind us of it, assure us that it’s there and should be appreciated. We are still in the middle of the crossing, and literature makes do however it can.

You write in Frantumaglia that you were the sort of child who “apologized for everything.” But as an adult, you realize that goodness “derives not from the absence of guilt but from the capacity to feel true loathing for our daily, recurring, private guilt.” Yet how can a woman ever truly know what she should be guilty for, when women live in a world of codes that have been created by men; when we live in “male cities” (as you have termed it) and when the route to understanding who one is necessarily involves exploring one’s instincts to “disobey”? How can you tell the difference between what you should feel guilty for and what you are made to feel guilty for but shouldn’t feel guilty for?

Our future depends on this connection. There is no true liberation without a strong sense of self. The systematic practice of disobedience is in fact an integral part of male values, and so doesn’t really free us; rather, at times, it crushes us, makes us even more acutely the victims of men’s needs, especially in the realm of sex. We need an ethics of our own to oppose that which the male world has imposed on and claimed from us. We need a hierarchy of our own of merits and faults, and we need to reckon with truth. But that’s possible only if we consider ourselves to be exposed to good and evil like any human being. When literature represents us as the positive pole of life or as having been exposed to evil only as victims—an evil that in the end will turn out to be a good, if looked at with spectacles different from those imposed by males—it is not doing its duty. The duty of literature is to dig to the bottom. We are a subject not only unpredictable but unknown even to ourselves. We have an urgent need for representation and for an ethics of our own. We have the right and the duty to explore ourselves thoroughly, to slip away, to cross the borders that make us suffer. I insist on self-surveillance, which means choice, assumption of responsibility, and the necessity of losing restraint in order to know ourselves, not lose ourselves.

Did you ever fear what you would lose by not participating in the media, festivals, etc.? How did you set about so confidently not pleasing your publisher? And do you think it’s possible for a writer who has sent herself around in the world as a writer to stop? Or does the fact of ever having been seen mean that something is forever lost and any retreat is useless? Finally, have you ever signed a book?

Yes, I made the mistake of signing a hundred copies, some years ago. It was naïve. It seemed to me that since I was doing it at home, in private, it wouldn’t cost me much. Today I think that I could have spared myself even that. I remain of the opinion that a book has to absolutely make it on its own; it shouldn’t even use advertising. Of course, my position is extreme. And among other things the market has by now absorbed it and made the most of it, while the media have readily changed it to gossip and a puzzle to be solved. But for me the small cultural polemic underlying the choices I made twenty-five years ago remains important. I will never consider it finished, and I trust that no one who feels that writing is fundamental will completely set it aside. Good books are stunning charges of vital energy. They have no need of fathers, mothers, godfathers and godmothers. They are a happy event within the tradition and the community that guards the tradition. They express a force capable of expanding autonomously in space and time.

The complete conversation between Elena Ferrante and Sheila Heti can be found in Brick magazine’s Winter 2017 issue, due out at the end of this month.

Corriere Canadese


Literary Links: Gornick on Ferrante, The Novelistic Election and More



Tanslated by Nicole Gounalis. The original Italian appeared online at Storie.

Elena Ferrante’s face in the Anglophone world today is that of her translator, Ann Goldstein. New Yorker editor, and guardian of its prestige, on March 30 of this year she returned as an ex-student to Bennington College—she left in 1971—where she met with a small group of students before taking part in an evening at a lecture hall on campus. BARBARA ALFANO, who has taught Italian literature at the Vermont college for years, gathered the testimony of Goldstein’s almost superhuman determination.



What demon possessed you, at age 37, to learn Italian in order to read the Divine Comedy in the original and, furthermore, all of it, not just the Inferno, like most students in the United States?  Was it the itch to discover this other world within the words of a person who recounted having been there, or were you overtaken by this mania because someone had explained to you that Dante is the father of the Italian language and, as the head copy-editor at the New Yorker, perhaps tired of embellishing others’ stories, eliminating useless adverbs and changing comma placements, you decided to learn a new language from its source?

Because you are also an editor of the magazine, a guardian of its prestige, and you know that certain things are either done well or not at all, and therefore to learn Italian you should start with Dante. Was it like that? That you were taken midway upon the difficult and industrious New Yorker journey?

This is what I wanted to ask Ann Goldstein (b. 1950), as soon as I met her, but we were seated in a classroom in Bennington, Vermont, in front of fifteen students eager to ask her questions about Elena Ferrante and Ferrante’s novels, all of which Ann has translated. She was as shy and surprised as the students to find herself at her alma mater, to which she hadn’t returned since 1971, the year she graduated with a degree in literature. She was seated between me and Ben Anastas,1 who had invited her and with whom I was teaching a course entitled “In Search of Elena Ferrante.”

When I finally had the opportunity to ask her why Dante, she responded that it was a pressing desire. After having read the Divine Comedy in English, “I wanted to read it in Italian and I convinced some colleagues that they, too, should learn Italian and read Dante.”

In that way, from 1987 onward, they studied Italian at the New Yorkerwith a private instructor once a week for many years, a habit that Ann and her colleagues have taken up again recently. In that first period of time, they started to read Dante after only a year of lessons. That same year, Goldstein, who has worked at the New Yorker since 1974, was simultaneously made head copy-editor and promoted to editor.



Before arriving at the New Yorker, Ann had studied comparative philology—Greek and Latin—for a brief period at University College, London. She also learned a little Sanskrit, but didn’t even think of translation until, in 1992, an Italian friend shared with her a short essay by Aldo Buzzi, “Chekov in Sondrio.” It was subsequently published in translation in the New Yorker; she said that she had tried her hand at translating it. In truth, she did much more than that: she won the PEN-Renato Poggioli Prize for translation for the volume of Buzzi’s collected writings, Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels (1996).

Since then, Ann Goldstein works on translation in all the free time she has left over from her job at the New Yorker—weekends, vacations, spare hours, and long nights. She has translated, in random order, Alessandro Baricco, Giacomo Leopardi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alessandro Piperno, Antonio Monda, Serena Vitale, Roberto Calasso, Giovanni Paolo II, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Primo Levi. She was the editor for the monumental work that is the translation of Levi’s three-volume complete works. She coordinated the work of nine translators and translated various pieces herself. It was a massive effort that took years, published in 2015, and it brought the translator, herself of Jewish origin, closer to the story of the Holocaust in Italy.

Fame, however, arrived thanks to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy. In September 2012, My Brilliant Friend was released in the U.S. and in January 2013, James Wood published a long article in the New Yorkerdedicated to Ferrante’s work. This marked the beginning of great international success, which quickly became ‘Ferrante fever’ with the publication of the final book in the cycle. The Story of the Lost Child is a candidate for the Man Booker International Prize, the prestigious prize that honors novels in translation.

Ann has translated all of Ferrante’s work, including the interviews. In November of this year La frantumaglia will also be released in translation, the book that complies more than twenty years’ worth of letters and various writings by Ferrante on the subject of her work. Ann’s relationship with Ferrante’s novels had already begun in 2005. As in the case of the Divine Comedy, the culprit was a book: The Days of Abandonment (2002), which enthralled her. Even though Europa Editions, sister press of the Italian E/O, had asked various translators to send only a short sample of work that they would like to do, Ann sent the publisher the entire novel. “I wanted that job!” she confessed to the students at Bennington with an intense look and a big grin, revealing the enthusiasm and professional rigor that have made her a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (1995, 2006), the American Academy in Rome (1993-4, 2002, and the Guggenheim Foundation (2008).



While the students spoke with her, I glanced at the translation drafts she had brought with her to the class and that she had spread out on the desk for me with a restrained gesture, saying in a soft voice, “If these can be of use…” The answer I was looking for was there, in those drafts. There were no doodles, no confused notes in the margins, no long underlinings, no armies of question marks. There was nothing to indicate the translator’s torment, as I had imagined it. Instead, there were interruptions—words substituted for others, here and there, that lit up the sentences like a Christmas tree. A magic. A short pencil mark got rid of a word judged imperfect and the new word, written beautifully above, illuminated the entire sentence, gave it color, transformed it. In this way, I understood.

I understood that for an artisan of language, impassioned and meticulous, reading the Divine Comedy in English would have given her a great itch. Dante’s work doesn’t permit translation, only great betrayal, even when it’s done well. It would be an itch that only recourse to the original could scratch. The only cure for translation, it seems, is to become its practitioner.



Ann Goldstein is not merely the face of Elena Ferrante, as by now many overseas newspapers and magazines are calling her. Ann Goldstein, like every translator, creates what the author cannot: their work in another language. Translators don’t just lend their native language to a work. The organizers of the Man Booker International want this to be clear to everyone—the prize, starting this year, will be shared equally between the author and the translator.

Ann, congratulations on the nomination for the Man Booker International Prize. Have you and Elena Ferrante congratulated each other? Has she written to you?

Thank you. No, but we don’t have a relationship where we write each other regularly.

Has your relationship with her changed over the years?

Not much. In the beginning she was more reserved and when I had doubts I asked the editors at e/o, the Italian press. They would pass the questions on to Ferrante. I don’t know exactly why but I’ve kept up this ‘long distance’ relationship, so to speak, even though I imagine that now I could easily stay in touch with her through email.

The organizers of the Man Booker International decided, from this year on, to award translators alongside writers. Boyd Tonkin, president of the jury, spoke of first-class translations. Are they finally recognizing the translators’ role as equal to that of the author?

It’s a gratifying development, this recognition of the translator. I wouldn’t say that the translator is equal to the author, but obviously it’s important in the sense that a book wouldn’t exist in another language without the translator. Certainly all translators have had this experience of a review, where long passages from the book are quoted without reference to them, or to the fact that these passages have been translated from another language.

Elena Ferrante has said she is also a translator.2What effect does it have that the writer whose works you’ve been translating for more than ten years shares, in some sense, your profession and that she has complete trust in you (her words)? Is it common that one translator has such absolute trust in another?

I think that she recognizes and understands the difficulties of translation and therefore appreciates the work. I believe she reads English and has read the translations, at least of the first books.

Has it ever occurred to you to write a novel?

No. I leave that task to others.

The first novel of Ferrante’s that you translated was The Days of Abandonment and you did it all at once. Tell me about this experience.  

It was an intense experience, as you can imagine. It’s book without any breathing room, in a certain sense, and this is communicated to the reader, who can feel suffocated. We’re in the mind of the protagonist and it is not a calm or easy place. Often I wanted to escape but it wasn’t possible, or only for a brief period. As the translator, I couldn’t escape, I had to go back to reading, to reviewing, to reflecting on the words, the sentences, and how to render them in English.

I won’t ask you if the translator is a traitor because you don’t like to betray: you stay as close as possible to the original text. Even so, with Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle, you had to come to terms with an Italian that was purposefully rooted in the essence of Naples over time, with expressions like tamarro, scarparo, mappina, sciacquati in bocca. Did you have to betray, with a heavy heart? What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in translating the cycle?

I tried to find words or expressions that were not exactly slang, but more colloquial. I think that the most difficult thing was maintaining the intensity of the sentences, or the passages or paragraphs, and, at the same time, constructing fine English syntax. In The Story of the Lost Child,where Elena talks about the history of Naples, there are very complex descriptions, because it’s not only about places and a history unknown to Americans or Anglophones, but part of the setting.

Staying on the theme of faithfulness, I saw your name, for the very first time, as the translator of Alessandro Baricco’s City, and that work seemed perfect to me, very clean. It should be said that that book lends itself well to a fluid version in English, very close to the original. In fact, my first impression of City was that it was a novel suffused with America, even in its language. Baricco’s language, in other words, was inspired by America as a place.3 Did you notice that too? Are some styles easier to translate than others?

What you say is true, although I hadn’t thought about it in such explicit terms. City, a book I love—maybe I told you!—and which hasn’t received the attention it deserves, has a pretty American underpinning and for that reason it’s recognizable and, maybe, translatable. But every style has its own difficulties, even one that seems clear.

Before you, Italian literature in the Anglophone world bore the great signature of William Weaver, who passed away in 2013. Did you ever speak with him, even if not, ideally, in person, on your journey as a translator?

Yes, I knew him a bit—I knew some of his friends. We talked a bit, but when I had only just begun to translate. I visited him, once, in Italy—he had a house in Monte San Savino, near Arezzo, and there was a beautiful new room where he worked, which he called ‘the Eco chamber’, because it was built with the proceeds from The Name of the Rose. It’s a great story, but it indicates another difficulty translators face: the paltry compensation. Maybe the new Booker system will shed a little light on this problem.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing the translation of Something Written by Emanuele Trevi, a mix of autobiography/memoir and literary criticism of Pasolini’s Petrolio. It’s a fascinating text for me, having translated Petrolio, but it might not be for those who aren’t interested in Pasolini.

If it were up to you to propose a contemporary Italian author to translate, who would you choose and why?

I would like to translate Gli anni impossibili by Romano Bilenchi: it’s a series of three long short stories and I translated one of them, “The Chill,” but I think all three are necessary to render the power of Bilenchi’s writing. I wanted to translate Pasolini’s novels, but now I’ve done it, or at least I translated one of them4 (not including Petrolio, which I translated years ago).

Do you have a beloved book in the drawer that sooner or later you’ll translate?

Only in the sense that I’m behind on various projects.

She’s not running behind for her flight, however, which will take her to New Zealand to talk about Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi at the Auckland Writers Festival, ‘Down Under,’ as they say. She says goodbye to me from the airport in San Francisco. “That makes two of us,” I respond to her later, when she is already in the other hemisphere. “Tomorrow it’s my turn to talk about Ferrante.”


Further Reading

Aldo Buzzi, Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels, Random House, 1996.

Romano Bilenchi, The Chill, Europa Editions, 2009.

Ann Goldstein, “Remembering Updike,” The New Yorker, March 20, 2009.

Pia Pera, Lo’s Diary, Foxrock Books, 1999.

The Complete Works of Primo Levi, ed. Ann Goldstein, Liveright, 2015.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio, Pantheon Books, 1997.

Elena Ferrante, “Our Fetid City,” The New Yorker, January 15, 2008.

James Wood, “Women on the Verge: The Fiction of Elena Ferrante,” The New Yorker, January 21, 2013.


Elena Ferrante’s Books Published in Translation by Europa Editions

The Days of Abandonment (2005)

Troubling Love (2006)

The Lost Daughter (2008)

My Brilliant Friend (2012)

The Story of a New Name (2013)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014)

The Story of the Lost Child (2015)

  • 1.Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (2002, New York Times Notable Book), An Underachiever’s Diary (1998) and the memoir Too Good to Be True (2012). He teaches Literature at Bennington College. His writing has appeared in Harpers, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications.
  • 2.“Ecco perché mi nascondo” [“This is why I’m in hiding”], La Repubblica, October 26, 2003.
  • 3.Translator’s note: the Italian phrase used by Alfano (“sciacquare i panni in Hudson”) is a play on Alessandro Manzoni’s (1785-1873) famous quote describing his rewriting of the novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi). Manzoni famously re-wrote his masterpiece into Tuscan Italian, even though he was from Milan and the novel takes place in Lombardy.
  • 4.Ragazzi di Vita, The Street Kids (2016).

The Times

‘I am not the face of Elena Ferrante’

The Italian’s translator Ann Goldstein fears the novelist’s ‘outing’ will stop her from writing

Ann Goldstein says her day job at The New Yorker “supports my translation habit”DAVID BEBBER FOR THE TIMES

I am telling Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, how interesting I found Frantumaglia — a “jumble of fragments” — the collection of the Italian writer’s correspondence and interviews that will be published in English for the first time next month.

“Really?” asks Goldstein, elegant in olive cashmere V-neck, black trousers and a necklace of colourful beads. “I just read this Michiko Kakutani review in The[New York] Times. She lambasted it!”

Ferrante is the Italian author of Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment and the four books known in Britain as the Neapolitan Quartet. Goldstein has translated them all, as…

Kill Your Darlings

Conversation with Ann Goldstein


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.

KYD-INT04-Interview alpha

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.

Continue reading

Reading in translation


As Diana Thow and I were planning a session on Italian literature for the American Literary Translators Association conference, I happened to see translator of Elena Ferrante fame and New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein at the Turin Salone del Libro, where she was presenting a book of essays on Primo Levi and translation. [i] Goldstein, since she was part of the inspiration behind our panel on the state of Italian literature in English, graciously agreed to grant me this brief interview. The aim of the conference panel was to think about what breaks into the Anglophone market successfully, and what gets published yet neglected, or simply remains woefully unavailable. And of course, as Ann Goldstein has been behind one of the greatest recent successes in translated fiction—Elena Ferrante—I was interested in her take on why Ferrante has made such a splash. At the same time, Ferrante has perhaps unduly overshadowed Goldstein’s other translational achievements: there is the monumental Complete Works of Primo Levi, which she edited and co-translated, the uproarious satires of Amara Lakhous, the lyrical novels of Alessandro Baricco, not to mention works worthy of greater attention like Milena Agus’s beautiful From the Land of the Moon, Alessandro Piperno’s Persecution, Serena Vitale’s Pushkin’s Button, even a thriller—Giampiero Rigosi’sNight Bus—all books worth a read. In short, Goldstein has quietly emerged as one of the preeminent translators of Italian literature, and whether you admire or find fault with her style, she has reignited debates on translation technique for critics and readers alike. Here are her thoughts on the Ferrante phenomenon, and a little bit about the business and craft of translation.

Jamie Richards

Ann GoldsteinWriter Elena Ferrante has had enormous success in the US. To what do you attribute Ferrante Fever? Is it thematic, an effect of style, great marketing, word of mouth…?

I think that, ultimately, it’s a product of the books themselves, in particular the Neapolitan tetralogy. Ferrante’s exploration of the sixty-year friendship between two girls, and her forensic (as some have called it) examination, or excavation (a word she herself uses), of relationships and emotions is tremendous and moving. Readers become immersed in the lives of Elena and Lila, get to know their families, their friends, experience what happens to them—marriages, births, deaths, loves, hatreds—over these many decades. In the background—and sometimes pushing into the foreground—is the history of Italy from the postwar period to the present.  We really know these people and their struggles; we see them grow up and change and age and, in some cases, die, as we do with people in our own life. It’s not so much that we identify with the details of these lives—most of us did not grow up amid the violence and poverty of an outlying neighborhood of Naples, Elena and Lila’s childhood world. But I think we do identify with, and recognize, the people themselves and their relationships with each other and with life, and, perhaps, with their desire to find order or sense in their lives. Joanna Biggs in the London Review of Books starts her review: “Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people – mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone?” and so on.

Also, the plots are gripping, page-turning: Ferrante tells a good story. “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar….Plot is what excites me and my readers.”

The “fever” seems to have spread first through word of mouth. In particular, writers discovered Ferrante and writers are good at getting people to read what they recommend. Then just after My Brilliant Friend came out, there was the James Wood review in The New Yorker, and that seems to have been decisive in bringing Ferrante attention and readers.

Continue reading

Los Angeles Review of Books

Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 4: Ann Goldstein on “Ferrante Fever”

Liesl Schillinger interviews Ann Goldstein

ANN GOLDSTEIN WAS THE FIRST live, bona fide translator I ever encountered, but when we met, at The New Yorker magazine nearly 30 years ago, she had not yet become a translator; in fact, she had only been studying Italian for two years. She was a copyeditor then (a job she still holds today). In 1992, she did her first Italian translation almost by accident, to help a friend. The piece — a chapter from a collection of essays by Aldo Buzzi — was published inThe New Yorker in 1992. She has not stopped translating since, producing dozens of books while running The New Yorker’s copy desk. In the last five years, Ms. Goldstein has achieved a nearly unheard of distinction, becoming a household word for her English translations of Elena Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan Quartet — four enthralling, politically and emotionally charged novels about the intertwined ambitions and fates of two women who met as girls in Naples, after World War II. More than a million and a half copies of Goldstein’s English versions of the Ferrante series have sold in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Early this year, The Wall Street Journal published a profile of her, headlined: “Ann Goldstein: A Star Italian Translator.” It was a funny apotheosis for this understated woman, who is never one to toot her own tromba. In our conversation, the two of us retraced her journey to translation, and revisited some of the literary milestones she has encountered along the way.


LIESL SCHILLINGER: You really caught a wave with Elena Ferrante. Michael Hofmann told me he felt guilty for getting more attention than some translators, because he is also known for his poetry and criticism. What is it like to have received so much attention for your translations, so quickly?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: It’s completely weird; it’s so unusual. But, I think it should be good for all translators, not just me. I think it brings attention to the fact that books have translators, and that seems to me like a good thing.

Were you surprised by “Ferrante Fever,” as it’s called?

Needless to say, I was a little surprised — not surprised because I don’t think the books are good, which I do — but because many good books don’t get a lot of attention. With the Ferrante books, it’s not even the attention, it’s that they have so many readers.

Continue reading


I don’t become the writer, I inhabit the writer’s words: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator

Ferrante has brought her the fame which the Italian-to-English translator’s body of work should have earned her even earlier.

I don’t become the writer, I inhabit the writer’s words: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator

Ann Goldstein is probably the only translator in the world whose fame comes anywhere close to the writer being translated. That’s because she is the brilliant and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a collection of four books that have not only taken Europe, the UK, the US, and now the rest of the world, by storm, but are also about to be adapted for television.

Of course, Goldstein is a hugely accomplished translator, having translated, besides Ferrante, authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Primo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alessandro Baricco. She heads the copy department atThe New Yorker and is a recipient of PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Visiting Australia as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she spoke about her passion for the Italian language, the challenges of translation, and the surprising international recognition Ferrante’s books have brought her. Excerpts from the interview:

Has it been tough to deal with all the attention and publicity that is usually given to the writer and not the translator? The Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child] by Ferrante, whose identity is a closely guarded secret, has sold over a million copies and counting.
Yes [laughs]. Of course. I didn’t plan to be the voice of Ferrante or to be the speaker for the books. That came as a kind of a surprise to me.

Continue reading

Tony’s Reading List

An Evening with Ann Goldstein

It isn’t often that I venture into the city from my home in the far-flung outer suburbs of Melbourne, and it’s even rarer for me to do so on a school night.  However, the visit of a world-famous translator is something I hate to miss out on, so last Wednesday saw me make the trek to see Ann Goldstein, best-known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s work, in conversation at Federation Square.  Sadly, though, it wasn’t all it might have been – let me explain why…

While the English translations of Elena Ferrante’s books are published by Europa Editions in the UK and US, here in Australia we’ve had new editions (with much better covers…) from local press Text PublishingThe Neapolitan Novels have been a great success, bringing a lot of interest in Ferrante and her translator, hence Goldstein’s trip Down Under (with this event organised by Melbourne’sWheeler Centre).  Wednesday evening saw a large crowd attracted to the Deakin Edge lecture hall – I was near the front, so I’m not sure exactly how many people were present, but it would have been in the high hundreds for sure.

Continue reading

The New Yorker



The Italian novelists Elena Ferrante and Nicola Lagioia discuss writing and “the elusive subject that is women” in Ferrante’s forthcoming book “Frantumaglia.”

The following is an excerpt from an e-mail correspondence, which took place last year, between the Italian novelists Elena Ferrante and Nicola Lagioia, whose English-language début, “Ferocity,” will be published in the spring of 2017, by Europa Editions. The full correspondence will appear in Elena Ferrante’s “Frantumaglia: An Author’s Journey Told Through Letters, Interviews, and Occasional Writings,” translated by Ann Goldstein, to be published in November.

Nicola Lagioia: One of the most powerful aspects of “My Brilliant Friend” is the way in which the interdependence of the characters is rendered. Each time Lila vanishes from the horizon of Elena’s experiences, she nevertheless continues to act in her friend, and presumably the opposite is also true. Reading your novel is comforting because this is what occurs in real life. The people who are truly important to us, the people we’ve allowed to break us open inside, do not stop questioning us, obsessing us, pursuing us, and, if necessary, guiding us, even if they die, or grow distant, or if we’ve quarrelled. This interdependence extends throughout the entire world of the two friends—to Nino, Rino, Stefano Carracci, the Solara brothers, Carmela, Enzo Scanno, Gigliola, Marisa, Pasquale, Antonio, even Professor Galiani. To escape is impossible; they constantly reappear in one another’s lives. When you think of what such bonds are made of, they might seem to be a curse—but shouldn’t they also be considered a blessing? In some cases I confess I have envied these characters.

Elena Ferrante: Where do I start? In my childhood, my adolescence. Some of the poor Neapolitan neighborhoods were crowded, yes, and rowdy. To gather oneself, so to speak, was physically impossible. One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.

Of course, today I have small quiet places where I can gather myself—but I still feel that the idea is slightly ridiculous. I’ve described women at moments when they are absolutely alone. But in their heads there is never silence or even focus. The most absolute solitude, at least in my experience, and not just narrative experience, is always, to paraphrase the title of a very good book by Hrabal, too loud. To the writer, no person is ever definitively relegated to silence, even if we long ago broke off relations with that person—out of anger, by chance, or because the person died. I can’t even think without the voices of others, much less write. And I’m not talking only about relatives, female friends, enemies. I’m talking about others, men and women who today exist only in images: in television or newspaper images, sometimes heartrending, sometimes offensive in their opulence. And I’m talking about the past, about what we generally call tradition; I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected. And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others. And this crowd is certainly a blessing for literature.

Maybe capturing the fluidity of existences on the page means avoiding stories that are too rigidly defined. The long story of Elena Greco is marked everywhere by instability, maybe even more than the stories of Delia, Olga, or Leda, the protagonists of my earlier books. What Elena lays out on the page, at first with apparent assurance, becomes increasingly less controlled. In “My Brilliant Friend,” I wanted everything to take shape and then lose its shape. In her effort to tell the story of Lila, Elena is compelled to tell the story of all the others, including herself, encounters and clashes that leave very varied impressions. The others, in the broad meaning of the term, as I said, continually collide with us and we collide with them. Our singularity, our uniqueness, our identity are continually dying. When at the end of a long day we feel shattered, “in pieces,” there’s nothing more literally true.

Lagioia: If it’s true, as I’ve read in more than one article, that “My Brilliant Friend” presents no possibilities for transcendence (at least in the way transcendence is rendered in most twentieth-century literature), what do we make of Lina’s smarginature, her episodes of dissolving boundaries—that is to say, those moments when the world goes off its axis, appearing in its unbearable nakedness, a chaotic and shapeless mass, “a sticky, jumbled reality” without meaning? They are revelatory instants, and the revelations are consistently terrible.

Ferrante: I’m always surprised when someone points out as a flaw the fact that my stories contain no possibility of transcendence. Here I’d like to move on to a statement of principle: since the age of fifteen, I haven’t believed in the kingdom of any God, in Heaven or on Earth—in fact, wherever you place it, it seems dangerous to me. On the other hand, I share the opinion that most of the concepts we work with have a theological origin. Theology helps us understand the origins of the dregs we even now resort to. As for the rest, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m comforted by stories that emerge through horror to a turning point, stories in which someone is redeemed as confirmation that peace and happiness are possible, or that one can return to a private or public Eden. But I tried to write a story like that, long ago, and I discovered that I didn’t believe in it. I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us, as in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and Clarice Lispector’s extraordinary “Passion According to G.H.” You don’t go beyond that; you have to take a step back and, to survive, reënter some good fiction. I don’t believe, however, that every fiction we orchestrate is good. I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions. Human beings are extremely violent animals, and the violence they are always ready to use in order to impose their own eternal, salvific life vest, while shattering those of others, is frightening.

Lagioia: For Lila and Elena, getting an education is the only really worthy way to escape the condition of inferiority. Despite the many troubles they confront in the course of their lives, rarely do the two friends lose faith in the power of learning. What do you think of Italy today, full of university graduates who are adrift? It’s true that some of these youths don’t have the almost desperate relationship with education that Lila and Elena do, and that for the next generations (for their daughters Dede and Elsa, for example) there might be other tools with which to cross the shadow line. And yet, all in all, education strikes me as a means of emancipation unlike any other.

Ferrante: First of all, I would not reduce education to a mere tool of emancipation. Education has been considered essential mainly to social mobility. In post-Second World War Italy, education cemented old hierarchies, but it also allowed for a modest assimilation of the deserving, so that to some extent those who remained at the bottom could say to themselves, “I ended up here because I didn’t want to study.” Lenù’s story demonstrates this use of education for upward mobility. But there are also signs of dysfunction: some characters study and still they stumble. In other words, there was an ideology of education that no longer functions today. Its failure has become obvious: the directionless graduates are dramatic evidence that the long crisis in the legitimization of social hierarchy based on the credentials of an education has come to a head.

But the story also demonstrates another way of understanding education: for Lila, deprived of the opportunity to complete her education—at a time when this was crucial especially for women, and for poor women—and projecting onto Lenuccia her own ambitions of sociocultural ascent, education becomes the manifestation of a permanent anxiety about intelligence, a necessity imposed by the relentlessly chaotic circumstances of life, a tool of daily struggle. While Lena, in short, is the tormented omega of the old system, Lila embodies the crisis and, in a certain sense, a possible future. How will the crisis be resolved in our own tumultuous world? I’m not sure—we’ll have to see. Will the contradictions of the educational system become increasingly evident, signalling its decline? Will education be refined and accessible without any connection to the ways we earn a living? Will we have more cultured diligence and less intelligence? Let’s say that in general I’m captivated by those who produce ideas, rather than by those who comment on them. I’d feel better in a world of imaginative creators of grand ideas—even if this seems to me, admittedly, a formidable goal.

Lagioia: Someone who is truly rooted in life doesn’t write novels. The relationship between Elena and Lila seems to me archetypal, in the sense that many friendships and rivalries function according to this dynamic: it is, if you will, the dynamic that binds artists to their muses, although the muse in this particular case is anything but ethereal. On the contrary, she is earthly to the core, committed to confronting life, to clashing with it wholeheartedly. It’s Lila who feels the things of the world in a more visceral way. And yet, for that very reason, she cannot bear witness in the way Elena can. Although Elena fears that sooner or later her friend will manage to write a marvellous book, a book capable of objectively restoring the balance between them, that can’t happen.

That is one of the paradoxes that seem to bind Elena to Lila. How can one try to undo it, or live with it? To bear witness on behalf of someone who will not do so herself might seem either a generous act or one of enormous arrogance. Or again—and this is the most painful hypothesis—it becomes a weapon to render the people we love harmless, even if it means that we crush them. What relationship do you have with writing from this point of view?

Ferrante: Writing is an act of pride. I’ve always known that, and so for a long time I hid the fact that I was writing, especially from the people I loved. I was afraid of exposing myself and of others’ disapproval. Jane Austen organized herself so that she could immediately hide her pages if someone came into the room where she had taken refuge. It’s a reaction I’m familiar with: you’re ashamed of your presumptuousness, because there is nothing that can justify it, not even success. However I state it, the fact remains that I have assumed the right to imprison others in what I seem to see, feel, think, imagine, and know. Is it a task? A mission? A vocation? Who called on me, who assigned me that task and that mission? A god? A people? A social class? A party? The culture industry? The lowly, the disinherited, the lost causes? The entire human race? The elusive subject that is women? My mother, my female friends? No—by now it’s blindingly obvious that I alone authorized myself. I assigned myself, for motives that are obscure even to me, the job of describing what I know of my era, that is—in its simplest form—what happened under my nose, that is to say the life, the dreams, the fantasies, the languages of a narrow group of people and events, within a restricted space, in an unimportant language made even less important by the use I make of it. One tends to say: let’s not overdo it, it’s only a job. It may be that things are like that now. Things change, and the verbal vestments in which we wrap them change. But pride remains. I remain, I who spend a large part of my day reading and writing, because I have assigned myself the task of describing. And I cannot soothe myself by saying: it’s a job. When did I ever consider writing a job? I’ve never written to earn a living. I write to bear witness to the fact that I have lived and have sought a yardstick for myself and for others, since those others couldn’t or didn’t know how or didn’t want to do it. What is this if not pride? And what does it imply if not “You don’t know how to see me and see yourselves, but I see myself and I see you”? No, there is no way around it. The only possibility is to learn to put the “I” into perspective, to pour it into the work and then go away, to consider writing something that separates from us the moment it’s complete: one of the many collateral effects of an active life.

Double J

Elena Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein


Italian translator Ann Goldstein is the public face of Elena Ferrante, the reclusive author of the wildly popular Neapolitan novels. Ann will share what it’s like to be caught in the middle of Ferrante fever. We all want to know – is Ann really Elena?

Plus Barry Burns from Scottish post rock legends Mogwai have recently released the band’s 9th album Atomic that began as the soundtrack to a BBC 4 documentary about the atomic age. Find out how a visit to Hiroshima over a decade ago made the band want to get involved.

New Zealand Listener

New Yorker editor and translator Ann Goldstein – interview

By Michelle Langstone

Illustration/Daron Parton

Behind every great anonymous Italian writing sensation stands a brilliant translator – though Ann Goldstein, who has transformed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet into vivid, muscular English prose that has both charmed the critics and scaled bestseller lists, might shy away from being described in such a way. In person, Goldstein, a long-time editor at the New Yorker, is quiet and precise, her voice exuding a gentle curiosity and wry humour.

The Neapolitan books, which centre on the ruthlessly honest friendship between two women, have also been hailed as bringing to light a bold, new modern voice. Is there something about Ferrante’s use of Italian that is unique? “Italian is a naturally beautiful language. It’s very mellifluous. In terms of the sound, it’s very expressive. English can be very beautiful, but not in the same way – it’s not this kind of flowing, fluid thing.”

Goldstein says Ferrante talks about how she doesn’t want to be a “beautiful writer”. “Italians are very into these sorts of elaborate, beautiful, flowery kinds of sentences, and that’s the sort of classical Italian, and she doesn’t really fit into that. She’s so direct about what she’s describing, about emotions, about feelings, about the things that happen between people. The fact that she’s describing things that are not usually described in those terms in Italian literature means that the language she uses is often a little cruder, more raw. I don’t mean vulgar. I just mean it’s more direct, really. And kind of brutal.”

Continue reading