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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.

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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.


AMT: And that I guess explains why, that she wants us to just appreciate these stories.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: She talks about that a lot in Frantumaglia.You’ve probably read that. You know she does talk about how the book, once she’s written the book and she wants that to be—the reader to have the relationship with purely with the book, not with the author.

AMT: So how do you work as a translator with an author that you cannot talk to?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, in fact I’ve translated a lot of dead authors so it’s not that unusual for me. When I had questions, I would write to the publishers and they would get in touch with her. So that’s sort of how I worked with the absent author.

AMT: And do we know that she’s a she?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I feel pretty strongly that she’s a she. And I think that that the more she’s written—I mean I felt that very strongly with the first book that I read which was The Days of Abandonment. I think her other books, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, the three novels that she wrote before the Neapolitan quartet seem pretty strongly to have been written by a woman and certainly I felt that way even more with the Neapolitan quartet.

AMT: You know there are people who think you are Elena Ferrante.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yes, I know. [laughs]

AMT: So, on the record you just have to tell me.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I am not Elena Ferrante.

AMT: Okay. Well, and I guess I’ll have to accept that. But it is unusual in this period in time to have an author who wants nothing of the limelight.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: It is. It is unusual, although I have heard other authors say they wish they had been able to do that or that they had been able to in any sense of the word. I mean I think the pressure from publishers is tremendous for an author to sell his or her book and you know I mean authors, they want to sell their books.

AMT: But it’s interesting because this sells on the strength of the story and also the paradox—the more of a mystery you are, the more people want to kind of—

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I mean I guess. You know I sort of I’m not sure about that aspect. I mean that’s also one of Gatti’s things, that you know that she’s doing this, you know she’s mysterious in order to sell books. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I mean certainly when she started out, she had some personal reasons I think, but she also felt that she didn’t want to be part of the commercial world, the literary marketplace so to speak. And she told the publishers that right from the start and you know she said I’m not going to do anything for my books and you know you’ve agreed to that so let’s go along with it. They did agree to it. So yeah. I mean when her first books came out in Italy particularly, there was a huge amount of speculation about who she was. Many writers were named, both men and women. There was the theory that she was a group. But I think that sort of died down a bit until the Gatti thing. And then of course all of this arose again.

AMT: Because he’s arguing that it is a woman and her husband who have essentially written them kind of together or in influence.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I think he really thought it was the wife of this couple, both of whom have been named in the past as possible Ferrantes. But I think neither they nor the publishers have either confirmed or denied it. So you know and I think, I hope that that is sort of going away.

AMT: So where did you get your love of Italian?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I wanted to—I read Dante in college and I just was completely enthralled by Dante and I wanted to read Dante in Italian. And that’s how I started. I mean that’s where I think my original love for Italian came.

AMT: And you work as an editor at the New Yorker and you do this around your other work.


AMT: So novels as complicated and like these novels of Ferrante’s, when would you do them?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Weekends, vacations, early mornings, nights. Yeah, I just… I work a lot. [chuckles]

AMT: Well, and you work well as well. So let’s talk about the Neapolitan quartet just a little bit here. It is about the lifelong relationship of two girls, Lila and Lenu. What stands out for you about that relationship?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think that the complications of it are what are interesting or what stand out. I mean the way that they influence each other, that they don’t influence each other, that they are constantly in touch with each other one way or another throughout their whole life. I think it’s the lifelongness—if I can put it that way—of it. That’s one of the things that stand out to me.

AMT: The friendship of two girls who become old women and yeah, sometimes it’s a very troubling relationship and the power dynamic is—

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think what’s—I mean for example the titles of the four novels, I mean My Brilliant Friend, who is the brilliant friend? It really is both of them, I mean in a way or Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, I mean how do you interpret that? So I think that those are questions that in the relationship that remain through the whole course of the four novels.

AMT: She also writes unsentimentally about—with no sentimentality about mothers and daughters and that very fraught relationship, daughters who resent their mothers who have to come to some kind of, some peace with their mothers as they get older. It’s so rich. It’s so raw.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I know. It is, I mean in a way. And Lenu doesn’t really come to any peace with her mother until her mother’s dying. I mean there are moments where you think that they’re going to—that there’s this closeness and then there’s this also well, almost hatred. But yes, I mean it is very raw and brutal really.

AMT: And not wanting to be like her mother.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Not wanting to be like her mother and then there are her daughters not wanting to be like their mother. I mean and she, in a sense, is like her mother with her daughters. But to see all that playing out through generations is really fascinating and gripping in a way and upsetting.

AMT: Yes. Yes. And well, and the sweep, right, because it takes us from fifties Italy through times of real political turmoil and terror attacks and you know police crackdowns, feminism.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I think that the way Ferrante does that is really wonderful, that you sort of experience the history of Italy in a way that a person living through it might experience. In other words, it’s not—you don’t hear about these events in the news kind of way or somebody recounting the history. It’s more that you experience it the way you might something that happens to you. You know you’re sort of on the edge of the crowd or in a group of women. I mean it’s just—I just, I think it’s really wonderful the way she does that.

AMT: And when you’re translating something like that, how much do you have to go back and do research on that time to make sure that the characterization moves itself into the other language?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I did a fair amount. I mean not a huge amount. I mean I knew something about that period of Italian history. I read some bits. I asked people.

AMT: And there’s a word—and I’m going to mispronounce it, me with the Italian name—smarginatura?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Smarginatura.

AMT: What is that?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: It’s the loss—well, I think it’s called dissolving margins, dissolving boundaries. It’s actually—it’s not a common word in Italian. I mean it has to do with printing, with bookbinding originally. That’s the derivation of it. But it’s applied to Lila when she feels that things are losing their boundaries and dissolving into one another. And it’s really sort of like as if she was losing the sense of self, the sense of herself, the sense of the division between people, between people and things and the sort of more physical. Where she talks about it the most is in the fourth book, I think, tells about the earthquake of 1980, I think. And that’s almost like a physical smarginatura, dissolving of margins and Lila and Lenu are together in this, they’re both pregnant and they’re watching this take place and experiencing it at the same time. And Lila talks at great length about the feeling of smarginatura and it’s kind of in a way being physically demonstrated around them.

AMT: Yeah, it is a common occurrence throughout the book.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: It recurs, yeah.

AMT: Yeah. And it’s again the characters who we think we know, we see their weaknesses and what they’re struggling with underneath.


AMT: It is real art, isn’t it, to be able to help someone—it’s almost you’re growing up with them. You meet them when they’re playing with their dolls and there’s already that little, that little bit of backbiting going on between the two of them. Lila throws the dolls into a cellar.


AMT: But then you continue to watch them and you just, you almost grow organically with them.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. Yes. Yes, I think that’s a very good way of putting it. You do because you see the tension between them, the competition, the love between them, really too. I mean it’s—and the sort of being unable to do without the—each being unable to do without the other. Of course we are hearing all this from the point of view of one of them. So people have, some people have talked about well, you know the unreliable narrator kind of thing but I don’t know if that’s true or not, but nevertheless, it is one person’s view of this relationship.

AMT: Some people have called this women’s fiction. How do you respond to that?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I mean people who say that seem to be I mean denigrating it in some way and saying it’s only you know it’s not universal in some way. It’s not as good as, I don’t know, male fiction. I don’t know, I think it’s not women’s fiction. I think it’s people’s fiction.

AMT: John Turturro, the actor, has said that more men should read Ferrante books.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: That’s right. He said that he learned a lot about his mother and the women in his family from it.

AMT: Well, it’s funny. When I meet women who aren’t interested, like who start the books, not everybody likes them but most everybody I know does. And I said it’s best friends, there’s a relationship there that that a lot of people have with someone through the years and you let it go, it comes back, it gets uncomfortable. I’m saying too much about myself maybe.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: No, no, no.

AMT: But it’s there, right?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: No, but I think one of the reasons for the popularity of these books is that people read themselves in it. Either you know they read them—they see the relationship that they’ve had or something similar to it but they see it examined in a way that they might not have wanted to examine it or to go into it. And I think that’s one of the reasons that people are so, become so sort of engrossed in them.

AMT: Yes and I think that’s one of the reasons people want to know who Elena Ferrante is too, Elena Ferrante, because it’s that idea that oh, you understand this. Can we talk, you know?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, that’s true. [chuckles]

AMT: But we don’t know who she is. We don’t know where to find her. We don’t know, you know and we see this with other authors, right, who have you know great Facebook followings because people just want to understand more about how they think. And we have to figure that out, although now Frantumaglia tells us a little bit about her process, right?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: It does. It does.

AMT: Or a lot about her process.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I think a lot, in a way.

AMT: Yeah. What does frantumaglia mean?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, it comes from this word, frantumare, which is a verb that means to shatter or to fragment, and frantumaglia is both the process of shattering and the result of the shattering. And it’s sort of, I mean loosely fragments, bits and pieces. She, in one of the pieces in the book, Frantumaglia, she talks at some length about the meaning of the word. She says it’s a word that her mother, of her mother’s dialect. Well, it’s sort of a dialect word. And then she goes on and describes it at great length about, it’s about all the different things that it represents. She talks about you know a landscape of debris, a watery place full of bits and pieces of things. Anyway, I can’t quote it exactly. But anyway that’s sort of the idea, is that it’s—and it’s not always good things, in fact, it’s very often bad things.

AMT: You know most—in some ways because we don’t know who she is and we know who you are, you’re the closest I’m going to get. Do you have—do you feel that you are getting celebrity status from this? And how do you react to that?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, it’s very peculiar. I mean translators usually are the silent partner in most books. So I mean I think it’s great for translation. I mean I think people should recognize that translated books have translators. They didn’t get there magically. So I think it’s—you know I think it’s good for translation that I’m being recognized in this way. But at the same time, I feel you know I’m not Elena Ferrante and I don’t have her—I didn’t grow up in Naples obviously and I shouldn’t be confused with her in any way.

AMT: But we’re glad that you are there to bring her work to us.


AMT: Thank you so much for your work and it’s good to talk to you. Thank you for coming in.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Thank you very much.

AMT: That is Ann Goldstein. She has translated Elena Ferrante’s books including the popular Neapolitan quartet. She is in Toronto for an event called Our Brilliant Friend, discussing Elena Ferrante through Hot Docs. If you have any thoughts as you listen to this, you want to share your view of the whole idea of Lila and Lenu, let us know. You can tweet us, we are @thecurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook or go to our website www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. Click on the contact link. If you’re joining us partway through, download the podcast or listen right online. And stay with us. In our next half hour, one of the most basic needs is one you rarely worry about: access to safe private bathrooms. That access is woefully out of reach for hundreds of thousands of people in South Africa where for some, using a toilet has become a matter of life and death. We’ll bring you a documentary report in our next half hour. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current on CBC Radio One, Sirius XM and online on www.cbc.ca/thecurrent.