The Guardian

Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, sat in conversation with Judith Thurman, Roxana Robinson and Rebecca Carroll to discuss the author’s work

Naples, setting of Ferrante’s novels, with Versuvius in the background.

Ann Goldstein has two coping mechanisms for translating especially difficult passages of Elena Ferrante’s novels, she told an audience at the PEN World Voices Festival on Thursday.

First, she gets up and walks around the house. Second, “I sit there thinking, ‘Don’t do that, don’t do that!’” said Goldstein. Goldstein is also head of the copy department at the New Yorker. Her translations of the Italian author’s books have garnered much acclaim. Passages about politics and history in the Neapolitan quartet were technically complicated, but the most emotionally wrenching section was the death of a beloved pet in Days of Abandonment.

“I almost had to stop translating, or rather, stop revising it, because I couldn’t bear to read it another time,” Goldstein said.

It is this visceral, “heightened intensity” that makes Ferrante’s novels so compelling, says novelist Roxana Robinson. The Neapolitan quartet, which chronicles the lives of two friends named Elena (also called Lenu) and Lila, from childhood into old age, has become an unexpected success in the US, making the pseudonymous author the subject of much debate. The last novel in the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, was also recently shortlisted for the Booker prize.

Robinson and Goldstein were joined at the event by New Yorker staff writer Judith Thurman and Guardian columnist Rebecca Carroll. The evening was spent discussing the nuances of Ferrante’s work in great detail. (Those who have not yet read them may find spoilers below.)

The Ferrante novels are ultimately about “what happens to women” and the ways that they are trapped by their gender, Robinson said. Brilliance, she argued, could not be not enough when Lila was prevented by her father from continuing her education and married at 16. “Her choices are really taken away from her by the presence of her body – her female body – and that is what is the cage,” she says.

Yet it is this same gendered experience that is responsible for the intensity of the friendship between the girls, and its many forms over a lifetime. Women’s friendships are different from men’s, Robinson added, often more complicated, with more competition and jealousy but also “with a deeper engagement that is splendid”.

“There’s both a gratification and a kind of danger in identifying with a friendship like that, because we have to live our own lives and in some ways this friendship is insular,” Carroll added. “How do you do that, and live?”

Questions of class and politics haunt the novel, pushing Carroll to ask whether Elena, who becomes a university professor and writer, is “better” than Lila, whose education is cut short and who later works in a sausage factory. Carroll recounted a conversation she had with novelist Sherman Alexie about how, like Elena, they both felt alienated upon returning to their hometowns and finding themselves suppressing part of their personalities.

“We wondered – does that make us better people that we have gotten education, have traveled, eaten at various places around the world and read books?” Carroll asked.

Characters in the Ferrante novels are frequently described as speaking in the Neapolitan dialect, but the dialect itself is never set down as such. Goldstein pointed out that in an interview from Frantumaglia, an upcoming collection of short non-fiction from Ferrante, the novelist says that she didn’t want to write in dialect because she thought of it as a kind of “threatening language”.

“She wanted to have the threat of that language in her Italian, but she didn’t want to actually use that language,” Goldstein said.

Though the quartet has been a phenomenon stateside, they have not been as successful in Italy. The focus there, according to Thurman, seems to be on “outing her rather than reading her” and especially speculating whether the author is male.

“If you can imagine Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater having been written by a woman, then I will entertain the thought that Ferrante was written by a man, but honestly, no,” Thurman said. The Neapolitan novels must have been written by a woman, in her opinion. “That primal woman’s experience was something I felt I had been waiting for my whole life as a writer and as a reader,” she added. “She was speaking to me from a place that no other writer actually ever had spoken to.”