Sidney Morning Herald

New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein a travelling ambassador for Ferrante Fever


Challenging work: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante's translator, says she "might be a little anxious" to meet the strong-willed author.

In the determined absence of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whose real identity is a secret, her American translator, Ann Goldstein, has become the willing ambassador for the phenomenon known as Ferrante Fever.

Goldstein says she has trouble explaining the addictive attraction of Ferrante’s fiction for women of all ages – and plenty of men.

“It somehow mirrors women’s experience, even if it doesn’t specifically mirror it,” she says. “There’s something universal about it in the sense that we all have mothers, husbands, children, all those relationships she explores.”

'Angry, compelling': Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend is the first in a series of four books following two women for 60 years.  ‘Angry, compelling’: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is the first in a series of four books following two women for 60 years.

Ferrante’s series of four passionate, angry, compelling novels, beginning with My Brilliant Friend, follows two women, Elena and Lila, for 60 years, from a poor childhood in postwar Naples through entangled lives that track changes in 20th-century Italy, from organised crime and communism to feminism and affluence.

Goldstein, who has worked behind many well-known writers as an editor at The New Yorker for 42 years, has emerged to talk about the books she helped turn into a rare success for translated fiction, with more than a million copies sold in English.

As a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next week, she will even autograph Ferrante’s books.

Book 2: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante.Book 2: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante.

But Goldstein doesn’t pretend to be Ferrante’s alter ego, and she swears she knows no more than the average reader about the pseudonymous author, who wants the privacy to write her intimate fiction. Only her Italian publishers know who she is.

“My sense of her is that she has elements of all her first-person narrators, but I don’t think she is one of them in particular,” Goldstein says. “She’s obviously someone who has read nearly everything; she’s studied classics, she’s read books in almost every language, on many subjects.

“I think she’s a strong intellectual mind and a person who is able to examine her emotions, or the emotions of her characters. I think she’s a strong-minded, strong-willed person. She’s not interested in superficial things, so she might be impatient with superficial things.”

Book 3: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante.Book 3: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante.

And so, if they ever met, she says with a laugh, “I might be a little anxious”. She doesn’t expect that ever to happen, and isn’t interested in endless speculation that Ferrante is this female academic or that man.

To visit Goldstein in New York recently, I went through tight security and up to the 38th floor of One World Trade Centre, the new 94-storey glass tower on the site of the World Trade Centre that was destroyed on September 11, 2001.

It’s an unexpected and slightly unnerving home for the 91-year-old magazine, its walls lined with historic cover art and cartoons that compete with sweeping views over Manhattan. Goldstein says she has got used to them.

Book 4: The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante.
Book 4: The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante.Photo: Supplied

As head of the meticulous copy-editing department, she began to study Italian some years ago with a group of colleagues who wanted to read Dante, and she did some translating for the magazine.

In 2004 she was contacted by Ferrante’s English-language publisher, Europa Editions, run by Australian-born Michael Reynolds in New York, and asked to do a sample translation from Ferrante’s short novel The Days of Abandonment. She got the job.

“She wasn’t known at all,” Goldstein says. “In America we don’t know anything about anything unless it’s in English, and even then, we don’t know much. This was the first book of hers I read and I was overwhelmed by it. I thought it was really, really good.”

She translated Ferrante’s other head-butting short novels about fractured families, Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter, and then the long Neapolitan books.

The greatest challenge, she says, is that Ferrante “writes these very dense sentences; a lot of times they’re long, run-on sentences that Italian can accommodate better than English. She’ll take you through a whole series of emotions in one sentence, or dig into an emotion to get to the truth of it. It’s hard to maintain that kind of intensity in English.”

Goldstein has translated the complete works of Primo Levi and other Italian writers, working on weekends and holidays, often spent in Italy. “I love doing it, but sometimes I say my New Yorker job supports my translation habit,” she says.

For Ferrante addicts wanting another hit, Goldstein has translated Frantumaglia, a collection of Ferrante’s essays, letters and (email) interviews, out in November, and The Beach at Night, a children’s book about a lost doll, in December. A TV series of the Neapolitan novels is underway.

Ann Goldstein will join Emma Alberici, Ben Law, Drusilla Modjeska and Susan Wyndham for Ferrante Fever, a Sydney Writers’ Festival event at Sydney Town Hall, May 21, at 5.30pm, She will speak at other festival events, and also in Melbourne on May 18.

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