The New Yorker editor who turned Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet into vivid, bestselling English novels has become the face of translators.
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.”
In bringing Ferrante’s stories to a wider world, Goldstein, whose love affair with the language began in the 1980s when she decided she wanted to read Dante in Italian, has become something of the face of translators. She’s also, inadvertently, become a proxy spokesperson for the author herself, one whose identity remains a well-guarded – though recently intelligently guessed at – secret. When not working on Ferrante’s novels, Goldstein has been overseeing the translation of Italian author Primo Levi’s complete works, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s absorbing Italian memoir, In Other Words.
An art form in itself, translation carries an air of studiousness; it requires precision and mastery of both language and intention, and the translator seldom receives public attention. In a language such as Italian, where a word has many possibilities of meaning, how difficult is the job? “That’s the problem of the translator – to choose which meaning of the word is the best for that particular moment, for that particular sentence. And you might change your mind afterwards. You might look at it once and the next day change your mind. There’s a million little decisions like that. It also depends on the sentence; you have to fit that word into a sentence – what’s the best meaning in that sentence, in that paragraph, in that chapter?”
Dealing with an author like Ferrante, that means sitting close to words of emotional violence and brutality, which raises the question of whether translation ever has a personal effect.
“Yes, definitely. Especially because I’m a person of basically the same generation, and the things that she talks about, the situations that she presents – even in Days of Abandonment [a novella, and the first Ferrante that Goldstein translated] – we all have had some experience similar to that, or even if not similar, we know what she is talking about. And I think that the way she captures the intensity of it does have a very intense effect on you. Just the part about the dog [inDays of Abandonment] – actually, as it happens, I had a dog who died shortly before that, but I had to stop. I was thinking, ‘I don’t think I can read this part again.’ Those things have an intense effect on your emotional self.”
Given that an editor’s chief job is to find absolute clarity in the use of words, has it been tempting to go back and look at what she might have done differently? “When I worked on the first [Neapolitan] novel, the second and third and fourth hadn’t been written, so I didn’t have the advantage of having read the whole thing first, or of being able to go to the end and then come back to the beginning. A word like smarginatura – people like to talk about that word. I never remember how I ended up translating that, I think it’s ‘dissolving boundaries’. But if I had known that that was going to come up again in book three or four with the earthquake where she really talks about it at much greater length, I might have chosen a different phrase. But by that time I had to use the same phrase, so there was that particular difficulty. I don’t know if I would have changed my mind about it, but a word like stradone [main road], leaving that in Italian – maybe I would have chosen a different word to leave in Italian.”
Recently, Goldstein handled a translation for Lahiri. The author, an American of Indian parentage, moved to Italy to immerse herself in the language, subsequently choosing to write and express herself only in Italian. In Other Words is presented in dual format and is the story of her journey with language and identity.
In the memoir, Lahiri talks at length about the freedom to begin again in a new language, and I ask Goldstein if that typifies her own experience. “I think that’s definitely part of it. You feel as though you can recreate yourself in another language. In some ways, our experience is parallel: of having just fallen in love with Italian and deciding to learn it. But she went in a different direction. I went to the opposite direction of translation and she went in the other direction of writing it.
“I think that learning a language, first of all, makes you much better at your own language. It gives you a different kind of view and contact with your own language. There is something freeing; you can just say, ‘I’m going to be an Italian person’, or pretend to be an Italian person, or be a different person. I can be speaking in a different language and be a different person.”
Working beside an author Goldstein had frequent contact with must have been a markedly different experience from working on Ferrante, with whom Goldstein has no personal contact, or Levi, who died in 1987. “In a certain sense it was very stressful, because it’s not very often that you translate a writer who is a writer in English, and a really good writer in English. So I was kind of anxious about it.
“I did the translation and then I sent it to her and then she sent it back with some corrections or quibbles. We both read it a few more times and we read the galleys and each time there were things she wanted to change, but it wasn’t that much. Often it was precisely what you were talking about earlier – a word, an adjective; she would just change the nuance. Something isn’t wrong but she really preferred a different nuance. In some ways that’s great, to have the author decide what the nuance is, rather than you having to decide.”
Does finding the right word, or series of words, keep Goldstein awake at night? “Occasionally. Sometimes I hope that, or wish that, it will come to me in my sleep!”