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NEW YORK (JTA) — It was back in the fall, at an event at BookCourt in Brooklyn, when translator Ann Goldstein was first asked for her autograph by an eager reader.
In nonfiction, it was for “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” a three-volume compendium of new translations of the late Italian Holocaust survivor’s 14 books — including “The Periodic Table” and “If This Is a Man.” She had shepherded the behemoth project into being over several years, serving as editor as well as translator of several included works.
In the fiction category, Goldstein grabbed a spot for her translation of “The Story of the Lost Child,” the fourth and final novel in Elena Ferrante’s literary blockbuster Neapolitan series.
Receiving rarely more than a passing line of praise in a book review, translators tend to toil behind the scenes, as authors enjoy the available literary limelight. So for Goldstein — who was profiled recently in The Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic — the attention feels “strange,” she tells JTA, sitting in an out-of-the-way spot in the Conde Nast cafeteria on the 35th floor of One World Trade Center.
Ferrante Fever goes something like this: You pick up one of Elena Ferrante’s books because a friend told you that you had to read it. You read a few pages, and then before you know it, it’s 3:00 o’clock in the morning, you’ve finished the book, and you’re on the hunt for the other three titles in the Neapolitan series.
This cultural phenomenon comes our way via translation — the novels were translated from the Italian by New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein. Ferrante is famously private — she gives no interviews, no one knows who she is — so Goldstein has become an unintentional face of the series.
But just in case anyone was wondering if Goldstein isFerrante, she’d like to clear that up right away: “No, I am not. I can say that without equivocation,” she tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer. “And I can also say I don’t know who she is.”
Goldstein learned Italian late in life. “I had this sense that I wanted to read Dante in Italian,” she says. So she signed up for an Italian class at The New Yorker.
Goldstein talks with Wertheimer about her recent projects; in addition to translating Ferrante’s latest, The Story of the Lost Child, she’s also translated Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, and edited Primo Levi’s complete works.
Her new book, written originally in Italian, throws up important questions about language, thought and identity
Among the many wild theories that did the rounds about the identity of Elena Ferrante, the popular and critically acclaimed writer of Italian novels that include the Neapolitan quartet, was that “EF” is, in fact, a pseudonym for Ann Goldstein. Goldstein is credited with translating Ferrante’s books into English. Even in the implausibility of the hypothesis is an intriguing thought: how much of a novel that we read in translation derives from the writer’s hand and how much the translator’s?
And taking the theory forward, should Goldstein indeed (and improbably) turn out to the ‘real’ writer of the Ferrante books, what language was her ‘original’ work written in? Was it translated from Italian to English? Or from English to Italian, while releasing the Italian first? Or, even more circuitously, from English to Italian to English again? More importantly, would any of this matter? Would the given book have had a different texture if it had been written in English or Italian first?
The great Italian writer Primo Levi is primarily known in this country for memoirs detailing his experiences in Auschwitz, his long journey home after the end of the war and his life as a chemist of Jewish descent in the quiet precincts of Piedmont. These books, published in America as “Survival in Auschwitz,” “The Reawakening” and “The Periodic Table,” give the impression that Levi was primarily a writer of Jewish trauma.
Or maybe it would be fair to say that he both was and wasn’t, but to limit him to this role in our literary culture is to belittle and distort the accomplishment of one of the great writers of the postwar years.
In books like “The Wrench,” “Other People’s Trades” and “If Not Now, When?” his intellectual curiosity led him toward a wide range of subjects, some Jewish, some not. He looked at the nature of work and how it engages the mind, the strangeness of our mundane daily lives, the way we construct patterns by which to give ourselves the illusion of safety and comfort. He even dabbled in science fiction. The one constant in his work is a precise, considered reasoning, a kind of scientific method, through which even his most fantastical imaginings are grounded in a clear and logical vision of reality.
Luckily, Liveright Publishing has recently brought out an omnibus, three-volume edition of Levi’s complete works that should serve as a corrective to our misconceptions. It contains the full text of all of his published books, newly translated and restored to the form he intended for them to take, as well as the entirety of his uncollected writings.
The task of commissioning the new translations and editing and molding the final books fell to Ann Goldstein, the renowned translator of Elena Ferrante, among many other writers. I was interested in what insights she’d gained about Levi over the course of the ten years the project took to complete. She graciously accepted my invitation to meet, and we grabbed a coffee and geeked out about translation at a Le Pain Quotidien near the downtown Manhattan offices of The New Yorker, where she has worked for many years.
A New Yorker editor, who translated works by Elena Ferrante, Jhumpa Lahiri and Primo Levi, has become a rare celebrity among translators
One evening this past September, more than 300 people squeezed into a narrow room at BookCourt bookstore in Brooklyn for the launch of “The Story of the Lost Child,” by Italian author Elena Ferrante. The author, whose true identity is a closely held secret, was absent. Instead, the crowd whooped and cheered for the headliner of the evening: the book’s translator, Ann Goldstein.
Translators rarely achieve celebrity status. But as Ms. Ferrante’s star has risen, so too has Ms. Goldstein’s. Her English translations of the four books in Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan series have sold more than a million copies in North America, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Ms. Goldstein, 66 years old, is now one of the most sought-after translators of Italian literature. Last fall, she celebrated the completion of a gargantuan project: “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” a 3,000-page collection for which she oversaw nine translators and translated three out of 14 books herself. This year, she expects to see the release of five of her translations, including “In Other Words,” a memoir by the American Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, which Ms. Lahiri wrote in Italian. “Frantumaglia,” a collection of interviews and writings by Ms. Ferrante, will also be released this year.
Katrina Dodson interviews Ann Goldstein
Last March, I began thinking constantly about a stranger named Ann Goldstein. Things like: What would Ann Goldstein do? I bet Ann Goldstein never has to look things up on grammar blogs. I wonder how Ann Goldstein felt about doing that sex scene.
Most readers who succumb to the phenomenon known as Ferrante Fever become obsessed with the Italian writer whose pen name is Elena Ferrante, and with the friends Elena and Lila, who form the center of Ferrante’s tetralogy known as the Neapolitan novels. I was no different, only my obsession also extended to Ferrante’s translator into English, Ann Goldstein. I fell under the spell of Ferrante-Goldstein just as I was working on line edits for my translation of The Complete Stories, by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Lispector, or Clarice, as she is known in Brazil, inspires a similarly passionate devotion and is now having her own moment of Lispectormania in English.
In this episode, first aired last year, Ann Goldstein and D. T. Max talk with Sasha Weiss about the fiction of Elena Ferrante.
On Thursday, March 19, Elena Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein and her editor Michael Reynolds of Europa Editions graced Two Lines Offices with their presence and conversation. Ann is currently in the midst of translating the fourth and last volume of Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan Novels, and she is also almost done editing (and partially translating) the complete works of Primo Levi. She is an editor at The New Yorker and a recipient of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award. Author and editor Michael Reynolds has himself translated Carlo Lucarelli’s De Luca series, children’s fiction by Wolf Erlbruch and Altan, and Daniele Mastrogiacomo’s Days of Fear.
The conversation between Michael, Ann, moderator Scott Esposito and Salon attendees includes first experiences of Ferrante’s work, translator invisibility, and a discussion on dialectics and the translation process. Tune in to hear personal insights about Neapolitan culture, history, and Ann and Michael’s experiences with working on the famed series.