As Diana Thow and I were planning a session on Italian literature for the American Literary Translators Association conference, I happened to see translator of Elena Ferrante fame and New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein at the Turin Salone del Libro, where she was presenting a book of essays on Primo Levi and translation. [i] Goldstein, since she was part of the inspiration behind our panel on the state of Italian literature in English, graciously agreed to grant me this brief interview. The aim of the conference panel was to think about what breaks into the Anglophone market successfully, and what gets published yet neglected, or simply remains woefully unavailable. And of course, as Ann Goldstein has been behind one of the greatest recent successes in translated fiction—Elena Ferrante—I was interested in her take on why Ferrante has made such a splash. At the same time, Ferrante has perhaps unduly overshadowed Goldstein’s other translational achievements: there is the monumental Complete Works of Primo Levi, which she edited and co-translated, the uproarious satires of Amara Lakhous, the lyrical novels of Alessandro Baricco, not to mention works worthy of greater attention like Milena Agus’s beautiful From the Land of the Moon, Alessandro Piperno’s Persecution, Serena Vitale’s Pushkin’s Button, even a thriller—Giampiero Rigosi’s Night Bus—all books worth a read. In short, Goldstein has quietly emerged as one of the preeminent translators of Italian literature, and whether you admire or find fault with her style, she has reignited debates on translation technique for critics and readers alike. Here are her thoughts on the Ferrante phenomenon, and a little bit about the business and craft of translation.
I think that, ultimately, it’s a product of the books themselves, in particular the Neapolitan tetralogy. Ferrante’s exploration of the sixty-year friendship between two girls, and her forensic (as some have called it) examination, or excavation (a word she herself uses), of relationships and emotions is tremendous and moving. Readers become immersed in the lives of Elena and Lila, get to know their families, their friends, experience what happens to them—marriages, births, deaths, loves, hatreds—over these many decades. In the background—and sometimes pushing into the foreground—is the history of Italy from the postwar period to the present. We really know these people and their struggles; we see them grow up and change and age and, in some cases, die, as we do with people in our own life. It’s not so much that we identify with the details of these lives—most of us did not grow up amid the violence and poverty of an outlying neighborhood of Naples, Elena and Lila’s childhood world. But I think we do identify with, and recognize, the people themselves and their relationships with each other and with life, and, perhaps, with their desire to find order or sense in their lives. Joanna Biggs in the London Review of Books starts her review: “Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people – mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone?” and so on.
Also, the plots are gripping, page-turning: Ferrante tells a good story. “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar….Plot is what excites me and my readers.”
The “fever” seems to have spread first through word of mouth. In particular, writers discovered Ferrante and writers are good at getting people to read what they recommend. Then just after My Brilliant Friend came out, there was the James Wood review in The New Yorker, and that seems to have been decisive in bringing Ferrante attention and readers.
Who has Ferrante fever? Do her readers fit a certain mold? Do they tend to be of a certain age, gender, class…?
Ferrante’s readers seem to be preponderantly but not exclusively women. At readings and other presentations, the audiences have tended to be more women than men, but not always overwhelmingly—and it may be that more women than men go to readings. The readers seem to be of all ages. I’ve heard quite a few mothers say they were brought to the books by their daughters, and at readings there are women and men of all ages. (Obviously this evidence is more anecdotal than based on any factual knowledge.)
Do you think that Ferrante’s work contributes to a certain idea of Italy (or Naples)? Does this have anything to do with its success?
It could be said that the common picture of Naples as a violent, camorrist, corrupt place is given life in Ferrante’s work, and in particular in the Neapolitan novels, but, especially in the fourth volume, the city is also seen as a place of great beauty, of deep, complex history, certainly a source and foundation of inspiration for the narrator. And perhaps the idea of the city as a character in its own right, in a certain sense, is a compelling one for readers. But while there are elements of the sort of superficial image of Italy as a place of artistic treasure, beautiful scenery, colorful characters, tangled bureaucracy, great food and wine, I don’t think they have to do with the work’s success. And although the specific postwar history of Italy has a role, I think what readers react to most intensely is, as I said earlier, the more “universal” aspects of the books.
Who are Ferrante’s influences and peers? Which writers or literary currents is she most in dialogue with?
Among her influences are the Greek and Roman classics; one of the few facts (I think) that are known about her is that she studied classics. In the Paris Review interview, she talks about her first models being masculine—she wanted to write like Defoe or Flaubert or Tolstoy. She says that the influence of women’s writing came later: “Feminist thought, feminist practices liberated energies, set in motion the most radical and profound transformation of the many that took place in the last century. I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction writing, women’s literature.”
Have you found that Ferrante’s relative anonymity has brought more attention to you, the translator, as a spokesperson or authority on the books?
Ferrante’s anonymity and her decision not to promote her books (at least in person) has definitely brought me more attention. I’m obviously not Ferrante, or even a stand-in for her, but I do feel a responsibility to represent the books, and the author, and, in particular, the fact that they are translated. My hope is that this attention would be a great advertisement for translators in general, for the work that translators do, and for translated books.
One of the most important issues for translators is our economic and legal rights over our work. What has your experience been like? Is copyright policy important to you? Do you receive royalties for your work?
I confess I haven’t paid a lot of attention to copyright issues.
As for royalties, I’ve tried to have royalties put into my contracts, just as a general principle, but a lot of publishers won’t do that, even when there is little chance that the translator will receive anything. In the specific case of Ferrante I do get royalties.
How would you describe your translation style and philosophy? How does your approach compare to that of other translators of Italian? Who are your influences?
I consider myself to be a fairly literal translator: I feel that it’s important to stay close to, be faithful to, the original, and I often go back to it when I’m revising a translation.
To some extent—and this is what I would call my influences—this is the product of being a copy editor and editor dealing with words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs: my job is to try to help writers express themselves as well as they can—not to say what I think they should say or the way I think they should say it. As a translator I am engaged in a similar process, except that I am making many more interpretive choices. As an obvious example, a word in the original may have many meanings, many connotations, but as the translator you have to decide which meaning is most important in a particular situation or context. Or you might make the decision on a more poetic basis: what sounds best, let’s say. Some translators, I think, may think of themselves as re-creating a text or creating a new one. Of course in some sense that’s true, but I don’t think of it that way. I don’t feel that my job is to improve or elaborate on what an author has written (although perhaps I have been lucky in that I have translated a lot of good writers), or to explain or comment on it.
You’ve also translated many other great authors besides Ferrante. Could you tell us about books or authors you have translated who have perhaps flown too far under the radar that you’d like to recommend?
I would be tempted to name almost every other writer I’ve translated—so little attention is paid, and there is so little promotion of translated books. But in particular I would mention Romano Bilenchi, whose novel The Chill (actually part of a trilogy, but the only part to have been translated) is a beautiful, short coming-of-age story, and some of the books by Alessandro Baricco, the earlier City (2002) and the recent Mr Gwyn.
Ann Goldstein is an editor at The New Yorker. She has translated works by, among others, Elena Ferrante, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alessandro Baricco, and is the editor of the Complete Works of Primo Levi in English. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the PEN Renato Poggioli prize, and awards from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
*All Ferrante quotations are from The Paris Review Interview. Elena Ferrante, Art of Fiction No. 228. Interviewed by Sandro and Sandra Ferri. Spring 2015, No. 212.
[i] In un’altra lingua. / In Another Tongue — a bilingual volume published in Italy but worth trying to get your hands on if you’re interested in reading more about her process.