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.

From what languages do you translate?

Italian. I studied it starting in 1986; we had a class at The New Yorker. Mary Norris [NB: longtime New Yorker copyeditor and author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen] was the organizer, and it was taught by Donatella Lorch the first year; then, the next year we read Dante with her sister, Lavinia, who later was head of the Italian School in New York. Their mother was an Italian professor at Columbia. Mary was taking Greek at Columbia, and Lavinia was her classmate — that’s how it came about. I was the person who wanted to learn Italian, but Mary was the one who had the connection. We continued for years after that. I think you may have come to the class, Liesl. A lot of people came at the beginning. After a while, Michele Cacciottolo, who was an acquaintance of Lavinia’s, started doing Italian conversation dinners, and you came to the dinners.

Do you remember when you first became aware of translating, as a thing you might do professionally?

It happened by accident in 1992. Saul Steinberg sent Bob Gottlieb a book by this friend of his, Aldo Buzzi. Bob gave it to me to read, because I was the only person at the office he knew who read Italian, and he wanted to know what was in it so he could write Saul a note about it. I decided to translate it just for the heck of it. Then I gave the translation to Bob, and he published it in The New Yorker. It was called Chekhov in Sondrio. Then, because I’ve been incredibly lucky, someone else asked me to do another translation, and I’ve been translating ever since.

What is your day job? 

I’m head of the Copy Department at The New Yorker.

How many books have you translated, roundabout?

A lot of things I have translated are not books. But about 35 books since 1992 — quite a few of them are quite short.

How did you happen to start translating Elena Ferrante?

Ferrante happened also by chance. When Europa Editions was opening its offices in New York, the first book they were going to publish was Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days of Abandonment, to start interest here in America, so they asked four or five people to do samples. I won that; I had already been translating for about 12 years by then.

What are some of your other significant collaborations, besides Ferrante?

Alessandro Baricco, Pier Paolo Pasolini — that was the second book I translated, his Petrolio — and also Amara Lakhous, Giacomo Leopardi, and Primo Levi.

What makes translating Elena Ferrante especially challenging?

Her intensity is difficult; you have to be sure to get it, to capture it. She uses run-on sentences in Italian, and to deal with the run-on sentences in English is more complicated than in Italian, because English doesn’t like run-on sentences that much. But you don’t want to lose the power of what she’s building up in those sentences.

What is your rapport with her, professionally?

I don’t communicate with her very much. In the beginning, she was much more inaccessible than she is now. If I had questions, I would ask the editors, and they would forward my questions to her and then forward back to me whatever her answer was. She has done all these interviews by email though lately, so I suppose I could email her, but I’ve kept up my system of not bothering her.

Has she ever raised any objection with how you translated something?

Not as far as I know. I think she said somewhere, in the Guardian or somewhere, that she trusted me.

How long did it take for your Italian to become fluent?

I wouldn’t say that my spoken Italian is really fluent; my Italian is really learned from books. But it’s way better than it used to be.

Do you find it difficult, when you have to speak in Italian at book events?

I only find it difficult when I am not prepared for it. I did a lot of presentations in Italy last year, so I got more used to it. I don’t like question-and-answer in Italian, I confess; but I can talk about things in Italian if I know in advance I’ll be doing it.

Do you have favorites among your translations?

One of my favorites is from [Giacomo] Leopardi’s Zibaldone. It’s this huge kind of daybook, it’s not really a diary, it’s like his reflections on life, languages, philosophy. It is huge. I think the English version is 2,500 pages, in notebook pages; as he wrote it, I think there are more than 4,000 pages. I did one section. There was a team of seven translators who worked on it, I did maybe 700 Leopardi notebook pages, which was 300 pages in the American version. He’s a 19th-century writer, and his sentences are so complex, you can barely get to the end of them — you are so inside this person’s mind, in his thoughts.

Can you recall a standout example of his complexity?

Oh yeah, “how the constructions, the progress, the structure that I call natural in a language, differentiating it from the reasonable, the logical, the geometric, have a universal identity, and are more or less easily learned (at least within a particular category of nations and eras) …”

Gosh! What was the first book you translated?

The Aldo Buzzi story that I translated for Bob Gottlieb became a book —Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels. It was published in 1996.

What traits do translators tend to have in common?

I think, for example, being a copyeditor is really useful for being a translator; so generalizing from that, I think they are people that are interested in words and also in details.

What translations have you published most recently?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words was the last nonfiction book, and Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child was the last novel. It was terrific.

And last fall you edited the three-volume set of the collected works of Primo Levi — all 14 of his books appear in it, including two previously uncollected gatherums of stories and essays. How many of them did you translate?

There were nine translators besides me. I translated three of the books and edited the others.

How is he to translate?

Levi’s writing is clear and balanced — by which I don’t mean simple or easy to translate. He is a scientist, a close and detailed observer, so there is a particular pressure to get the language right, but also the tone. He did some translating himself, mainly from German, I think, and he talks about how the translator has to have “a linguistic sensibility,” not just know the meaning of the words.

What translations are you working on now?

I recently finished a book by Alessandro Baricco, The Young Bride; it is coming out in July. And I am almost finished with a retranslation of Pasolini’s Ragazzi di VitaThe Street Kids, and with a children’s book by Ferrante.

A children’s book? What is it called? 

It’s called The Beach at Night. 

Is it dark? 

I think it is kind of dark. I mean — it has a happy ending — but the first time I read it I thought it was very dark, but then again I don’t read a lot of children’s books.

What is it about?

It is told from the point of view of the doll who is left on the beach in The Lost Daughter, which is Elena Ferrante’s third short novel — don’t get it mixed up with The Story of the Lost Child.

Who’s an Italian author Americans should know better?

Pasolini is not known as an author as much as a moviemaker. I think his novels are really interesting. And I really like Romano Bilenchi, who is a mid-20th-century author, but even Italians don’t know who he is.

Could you describe your process?

I sit down at the desk, and I type. I do the first draft fast, then I do the second draft, then another draft, and then the fourth. I do a lot of drafts, but it depends on the book.

Do you ever read out loud what you’ve done, to test it?

Occasionally, I do. Of course, if I had time, I would read out loud more often. Most of the time, you’re saying it in your head, and if you say it out loud, you get a much stronger sense of what the sentence reads like, and what might be wrong with it.

What do you like most about translating?

It is interesting to turn something from one language into another, it’s like making something. Sometimes, it is like a crossword puzzle. How do you fit all these words together in a sentence? How do you fit this one in, that part in?

What do you like least about it?

Maybe typing the first draft. It is the physical sensation that I just want to get to the end. It’s weird, because when I am in that phase, I’ve forgotten how hard it will be to do the second draft. I am really just sitting there typing; it’s physically wearing. Then in the second draft, I actually have to solve the problems.

Have you ever translated a work for which prior translations exist, and if so, what do you think about consulting preexisting translations?

I have done quite a lot of those, some of the Primo Levi. I preferred not to consult them; I turned to them only if there was something that was really problematic, to see how the other translators solved the problem. But I don’t want to read them. I don’t want to know what they did. 

What tools do you rely on as you translate?

I use both paper dictionaries and online dictionaries, Italian ones. There are a lot of Italian dictionaries online, like Treccani and Zanichelli — those also exist in paper. There’s this thing called Word Reference, which has discussions, word forums, and if you’re looking for a phrase, you sometimes can find a discussion on it. I use my paper dictionaries a lot. But I think the internet is an amazing tool, and not just for dictionaries. If you Google a word or a thing that is described that you don’t recognize, you very often will come up with something from an old text, or on Google Images, that can help you. It’s just amazing how much stuff you can find. When I was working on the Primo Levi, the internet was incredibly useful in helping me figure out the scientific stuff. He’d write about something, you didn’t know what it was, and the internet would show you a picture of it, so at least you could see what you were describing.

Will online translation replace human translators one day?

I don’t see how it can, because there are so many subtle decisions that you have to make, it’s not word for word.

What, in your opinion, makes a translation good? That is to say, what do you consider the goal of literary translation to be?

The goal is to deliver something from another language into your own language so people will read it and like it. I think sometimes it’s forgotten that you have to be a good writer in your own language. 

What makes a translation bad?

I think probably every bad translation is bad in its own way. I think it’s bad when it tries to rewrite the book, the original. Of course, as a reader you might not know this has happened. But you can tell if it sounds stilted. You might say to yourself, it probably didn’t sound this way in the original. Even if you’re not looking at the original, you sometimes just come to something in a translation that’s like a bump, and that usually indicates that there’s a problem.

Do you have a favorite translator?

I haven’t read that many translations, because I always prefer to read in the original, in Italian. But I’ve read all those Constance Garnetts.

Can you fill in the blanks: A translation is to the original as X is to Y.

Something I once read, and I think it’s true, somewhat, is that a translator is like an actor who interprets a role. Or a performer playing a piece of music, giving one interpretation.


Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic and translator.