Reading Elena Ferrante in Bulgaria(n)

By Stiliana Milkova

Last year I read Elena Ferrante’s new novel The Lying Life of Adults (La vita bugiarda degli adulti) in Bulgarian, in Ivo Yonkov’s translation from Italian. It was September 2020, it had just been released by Ferrante’s Bulgarian publisher, Colibri, and I was in Bulgaria myself. I went to Helikon, the largest bookshop in my home town Burgas, and asked for Ferrante’s new novel. The saleswoman quickly showed it to me on the shelf and recommended, since I was interested in Ferrante, that I also buy Nora Roberts’s (or was it Danielle Steel’s?) latest novel. I didn’t argue with her – I just picked up The Lying Life of Adults, paid for it and left. I refrained from telling her that Ferrante’s book was not a romance novel. I didn’t tell her that I was a Ferrante expert, that my book Elena Ferrante as World Literature was coming out in a few months, that it was the first scholarly monograph on Ferrante written in English, and by a Bulgarian at that.

Despite the saleswoman’s misguided recommendation, Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels are widely read and appreciated in Bulgaria for their original voice and subject matter, for their relentless, gut-wrenching exploration of women’s bodies and minds, for their tightly woven plots and gripping characters. While I don’t have official numbers, I have talked to scores of women and read reviews in Bulgarian that confirm Ferrante’s popularity in my home country. Exemplary is Daria Karapetkova’s extensive review of the first volume of the Neapolitan Novels in which she warns against the easy label of “family saga” (2016) and analyzes the complexity of Ferrante’s literary imagination. Karapetkova, an experienced translator from Italian as well as the translator of Ferrante’s 2002 novel The Days of Abandonment (in Bulgarian Dni na samota or “Days of Solitude”) and a scholar of literary translation, also discusses some of the challenges of translating Ferrante’s titles.

When I bought Ferrante’s new novel, I had already read it in both Italian and English, so I knew what to expect in terms of plot and structure, language and imagery. But what I didn’t expect was how it would read in my mother tongue. And I didn’t expect that reading it in Burgas would make a difference. Burgas is a port city on the Black Sea coast, with a mild Mediterranean climate, long and wide beaches, a charming old center with a distinctly Italian architecture, and with a sprawling gulf not unlike the Gulf of Naples. The context of my own reading recalled the Neapolitan setting of Ferrante’s novel (and of most of her novels), inviting me to transpose some of my own experiences growing up in Burgas onto those of the novel’s adolescent protagonist and narrator, Giovanna. The novel felt somehow closer to me, perhaps because I was reading it in Bulgarian, sitting on the terrace of my childhood home, overlooking the Gulf of Burgas framed by the curved outlines of Strandzhda mountain (see the pictures below).

Neapolitan geography is crucial to the plots of Ferrante’s novels. The poor, working-class neighborhoods lie in the lowlands while the upper and middles classes occupy the upscale hillside neighborhoods overlooking the gulf. In The Lying Life of Adults, Giovanna’s narration unfolds against this vertical background with its hierarchical topography of socio-cultural difference. Giovanna’s cultured middle-class family resides in the upscale Rione Alto whose name indicates both its topographic elevation and its status. Ivo Yonkov’s translation captures the spirit of Ferrante’s new book – the story of Giovanna’s gradual and painful articulation of her identity outside the frames imposed by her cultured parents and by her vulgar aunt Vittoria, and, as I argued in “Ferrante Breaks the Frame,” her ultimate emancipation from the male gaze and the male word. Giovanna’s coming of age entails a literal and metaphorical descent from the heights of her privileged existence in the Rione Alto to the industrial zone where her father’s working-class relatives live.

The Bulgarian title, The Deceitful Life of Adults (Izmamniyat zhivot na vuzrastnite), with its choice of “deceitful” instead of “lying” to render the Italian “bugiarda” bespeaks the translator’s nuanced approach. Deceit (“izmama” in Bulgarian) connotes a wider range of meanings – duplicity, cheating, lying, treachery – and hence evokes the many different forms of subterfuge at work in Ferrante’s novel.

Giovanna’s aunt Vittoria is as central a character as Giovanna herself. Vittoria is the uncouth, semi-literate sister of Giovanna’s father, Andrea, and like Andrea, she belongs to a poor working-class family. Vittoria embodies the low-class origins Andrea has tried to erase from his biography. When the twelve-year-old Giovanna overhears her father say that she is beginning to look like Vittoria, she undergoes an identity crisis and embarks on a sinuous journey of self-discovery. The Lying [Deceitful] Life of Adults narrates this journey. Thus Giovanna’s overhearing of her father’s words is the single event that sets the plot into motion.

The father’s words are: “She is getting Vittoria’s face” (“Sta facendo la faccia di Vittoria”). It is crucial to the novel’s plot that Giovanna thinks her face is beginning to resemble her aunt’s. After Giovanna overhears Andrea’s comment, she looks for photos of Vittoria. In the only photos she finds, her father has deleted Vittoria’s face by enclosing it in a black rectangle and filling it in with black ink. And since Giovanna is getting Vittoria’s face, the girl’s own face is put into question as well. Giovanna imagines her aunt as an ugly, monstrous woman and of course, projects that vision onto her own face. She allows that her father’s words and gaze determine her self-image.

The novel’s English translator, Ann Goldstein, renders the father’s critical proclamation as literally as possible: “She is getting the face of Vittoria” (The Lying Life of Adults, ebook). Ivo Yonkov, on the other hand, opts for a more interpretive translation that gets precisely at what the father intends: “She is beginning to look like Viktoria” (“Zapochva da prilicha na Viktoria,” 12). While Andrea clearly means the latter, it is also essential to preserve the word “face” so as to retain the book’s “underlying network of signification” (Berman) which links Giovanna’s and Vittoria’s faces to the blacked-out faces in the family photographs. That said, it is the translator’s prerogative to make lexical choices based on his or her own interpretation of the original.

But the choice of the Bulgarian “Viktoria” for the Italian “Vittoria” is more puzzling. Why change the Italian name – preserved in the English translation as “Vittoria” – to its Bulgarian version? Why not trust the Bulgarian reader’s linguistic and cultural intelligence? Similarly, the name of the father’s lover, Costanza, in Bulgarian becomes “Constanza” (Konstantsa). The translator has domesticated the names of the two women who, as it turns out, take part in a convoluted web of lies that propels the plot forward. This is an intriguing choice, especially because all the other names in the novel – personal or toponymic – appear as they are in Italian.

Towards the end of the novel, Giovanna mentally addresses Roberto, a charismatic academic who comes from the same neighborhood as her father and Vittoria, and who like them has the power to define her face: “Be careful what you say: my face has already changed, and because of my father I turned ugly; don’t you, too, play with changing me, making me become beautiful” (The Lying Life of Adults). Giovanna realizes the power of men’s words to shape a woman’s identity. Her own mother is proof of that: Nella remains in awe of her husband’s words and submits to his requests without hesitation even after she finds out about his affair with Costanza and even after Andrea divorces her and moves in with Costanza. Giovanna, however, refuses to be defined by the male word and the male gaze, and at the end of the novel liberates herself from both.

Translators too have the power to shape the experience of a foreign text. Ann Goldstein’s English translations of Ferrante’s untranslatable words frantumaglia and smarginatura have become key to understanding her novels and Ferrante’s theory of female suffering. The word frantumaglia­ – which Goldstein has translated as “shattering” (in her 2006 novel The Lost Daughter, 106), as “frantumaglia” and as “a jumble of fragments” (Frantumaglia, 99) – is a dialectal utterance Elena Ferrante attributes to her mother to describe a woman’s, most often a mother’s, psychological crisis triggered by patriarchal violence, physical or symbolic. It is an ailment that afflicts all of Ferrante’s female protagonists who feel imprisoned and crushed by notions of objectified femininity and idealized motherhood.

Smarginatura, the experience of “dissolving margins” or “dissolving boundaries,” appears in the Neapolitan Novels as Lila’s mysterious condition. “Smarginatura” is an obscure technical term from typography which denotes the cutting of the page’s edges or margins. In Ferrante’s novels, it implies women’s marginalization, subjugation, and abuse in a male-dominated society. Vera Petrova’s Bulgarian translation of smarginatura as “cropping of the margins” (“oryazvane na poletata,” Genialnata priyatelka, 87) in the first volume of the Neapolitan Quartet is a linguistic and semantic tour de force. “Cropping of the margins” aligns even better than “dissolving margins” with Ferrante’s recurring imagery of cropped, mutilated, or fragmented female bodies to suggest their colonization by male power.

In The Lying Life of Adults, Giovanna suffers from both frantumaglia and smarginatura. In the novel’s opening paragraph, she describes herself as “a tangled knot” (“garbuglio”) and “a snarled confusion of suffering” (“dolore arruffato). She is slipping away (“scivolare”) between the lines, dissolving, as it were, inside the margins of the story she is writing. These are Goldstein’s lexical choices which resonate with Ferrante’s overarching conceptualizations of frantumaglia and smarginatura. The Bulgarian translation renders “garbuglio” (tangle) as “disorder” (“bezredie,” 9), framing Giovanna’s narration as an attempt to impose order on an unwieldy narrative and an unwieldy, compromised female identity.  

Reading Elena Ferrante in Bulgarian, alongside the Italian original and the English translation, allowed me to reflect on my native tongue and its capacity to welcome and accommodate Ferrante’s Italian language. Although it uses the Cyrillic alphabet, Bulgarian is grammatically close to Italian. Ferrante’s word order, the long winding sentences often including indirect speech, the polite form of address, the gender and number agreement, the verbal tenses, even the subjunctive perhaps can be conveyed with more facility in Bulgarian than in English. Having already read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in Bulgarian, I wasn’t surprised by this affinity. One of Ferrante’s Bulgarian translators, Vera Petrova, told me that Ferrante’s prose, while not easy to translate, has a “lightness” (lekota) to it, an innate finesse that somehow makes the translation flow smoothly (2019).

The lightness of Elena Ferrante’s prose reminds me of Italo Calvino’s concept of “thoughtful lightness” which he develops in his Six Memos for the New Millennium:

the sudden nimble leap of the poet/philosopher who lifts himself against the weight of the world, proving that its heaviness contains the secret of lightness, while what many believe to be the life force of the times – loud and aggressive, roaring and rumbling—belongs to the realm of death, like a graveyard of rusted automobiles.

It is the heaviness of women’s arduous, traumatic paths in a violent and oppressive patriarchal society, “the weight of the male city” (Frantumaglia, 220), the weight of the male gaze and the male word, that mobilizes the lightness of Ferrante’s novels, her nimble leap against the aggressions of the world. And we feel that leap in translation as well.

Stiliana Milkova is associate professor of comparative literature at Oberlin College. She is the author of Elena Ferrante as World Literature (Bloomsbury Academic) and numerous articles on Elena Ferrante and on Russian and Bulgarian literatures. She has translated from Italian works by Adriana Cavarero, Anita Raja, Antonio Tabucchi, Alessandro Baricco, Dario Voltolini, Tiziano Scarpa, and others. Together with Barbara Halla, she co-edited a special issue of Reading in Translation on Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lying Life of Adults.

Works Cited

Berman, Antoine. “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign.” Translated by Lawrence Venuti. Berman, Antoine. In The Translation Studies Reader. Routledge, 2012.

Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the New Millennium. Translated by Geoff Brock. Boston: Mariner Books, 2016, ebook.

Ferrante, Elena. The Lying Life of Adults. Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2020, ebook.

Ferrante, Elena. Izmamniyat Zhivot na Vuzrastnite [Измамният живот на възрастните]. Translated by Ivo Yonkov. Sofia: Colibri, 2020.

Ferrante, Elena. Genialnata priyatelka [Гениалната приятелка].Translated by Vera Petrova. Sofia: Colibri, 2016.

Ferrante, Elena. La vita bugiarda degli adulti. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 2020, ebook.

Ferrante, Elena. The Lost Daughter. Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa, 2007.

Ferrante, Elena. Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey. Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa, 2016.

Karapetkova, Daria. 2016. “Elena Ferrante. Koya?Literaturen Vestnik [Литературен вестник]. 13 November, 2016.

Milkova, Stiliana. Elena Ferrante as World Literature. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Petrova, Vera. Interview. December 28, 2019. Sofia, Bulgaria.

One comment

  1. Serena · · Reply

    Wonderful article, draga moja! You gave me a lot to think about. The difference and hiatus(es) between semantic perception, usage and lexical/syntax norms is something that should always be taken into consideration. Thank you so much for this!

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