Guests: Ann Goldstein
AMT: Hello. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti and you’re listening to The Current.
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.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Thank you.
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.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.