Ann Goldstein has a friend who has a theory that she, Goldstein, is “the real Elena Ferrante.” Goldstein, for her part, firmly denies this theory—one of many about Ferrante’s “real” identity that abound in literary circles these days, as devoted readers welcome the publication of the fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, in English this month. Goldstein, who is an editor at The New Yorker by day, has used her nights, weekends, and vacations to translate Ferrante’s books into English for Europa Editions since Ferrante’s pre-Neapolitan novel days. (She’s the translator of a number of other Italian works, too, and the editor of The Complete Works of Primo Levi, also out this fall.) Translated books, Goldstein says, “hardly ever get this much attention.” And when they do, it’s unusual for much of that attention to be directed at the translator. But Ferrante, by insisting on preserving her own anonymity despite her international audience’s growing curiosity, has (perhaps unintentionally) managed to create an unlikely spotlight for her American translator. “It’s a little odd,” Goldstein told me. “It’s very odd.”
In Ferrante’s world, however, such a dynamic—an author remaining obscure while her translator fields interview requests—seems fitting. As Judith Shulevitz aptly demonstrates in her Atlantic review of The Story of the Lost Child (which will be posted online in mid-September, when the October issue of the magazine comes out), Ferrante does not consider storytelling to be an act anyone truly undertakes alone. The problem of transmission—of stories, of bodies, and lives—preoccupies the author and her narrator through all the layers of metafiction the two “Elenas” offer up. Are daughters bound to become their mothers? Can once-intimate friends ever really separate from one another? To what extent does a writer’s literary achievement render her indebted to the friend who is her muse? Ferrante challenges our ideas about the act of writing itself, so that we are left wondering if a writer’s work always and inevitably contains traces of the words and stories of others that came before it.
Goldstein is careful to emphasize that she does not, and never could, serve as a stand-in for Ferrante, nor does she consider translating to be a reinterpretation or recreation of Ferrante’s work. Still, she sees the enormous popularity of these novels, and the peculiar circumstances of their Italian author, as endowing her with a responsibility of sorts. “Translated books,” she explains, “get so little attention, and I think the idea that this book is a translated book—I think it’s kind of important for the translator to be a presence.” Goldstein wants American readers to know that works translated into English are not, by any stretch of the imagination, lesser works. And being the public face of Ferrante in America seems as good a way as any to go about reinforcing that notion. “It’s a good advertisement,” Goldstein says, “for translated literature, or for literature in translation, of which there is a surprising amount.”