Ann Goldstein is probably the only translator in the world whose fame comes anywhere close to the writer being translated. That’s because she is the brilliant and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a collection of four books that have not only taken Europe, the UK, the US, and now the rest of the world, by storm, but are also about to be adapted for television.
Of course, Goldstein is a hugely accomplished translator, having translated, besides Ferrante, authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Primo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alessandro Baricco. She heads the copy department at The New Yorker and is a recipient of PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Visiting Australia as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she spoke about her passion for the Italian language, the challenges of translation, and the surprising international recognition Ferrante's books have brought her. Excerpts from the interview:
Has it been tough to deal with all the attention and publicity that is usually given to the writer and not the translator? The Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child] by Ferrante, whose identity is a closely guarded secret, has sold over a million copies and counting.
Yes [laughs]. Of course. I didn’t plan to be the voice of Ferrante or to be the speaker for the books. That came as a kind of a surprise to me.
How difficult is it to translate? Do you fear about expressions being lost in translation?
Naturally, it is always difficult to translate because there are always things for which there are no equivalents really. But you try to work around those things. Of course there are things that are lost. You have to choose one meaning from a host of meanings for a word. The word in Italian might have three or four different meanings and you have to choose the one that you think is the most important in that particular situation whereas for the author in the original language, the word has all those different meanings.
Was it easy to translate Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words (In Altre Parole), a memoir of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s courtship with the Italian language?
Every translation has its own difficulties. Jhumpa’s book also had some difficulties, but it was such a different experience. First of all, it is needless to say that it was kind of a shock when someone asked me to do it. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to translate it herself. But as it turned out, her reasons which you have probably read and she gives them in the book, that her book was written in Italian with her mind thinking in Italian and that she didn’t want to rethink it in English.
That makes sense to me, but nevertheless you can imagine that it was a little bit anxiety producing to be translating something for someone who was a great writer in English. [Lahiri is the author of Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland.] Of course, I wasn’t going to imitate Jhumpa Lahiri because her Italian isn’t like her English. But there were difficulties there.
Were you satisfied with the end result?
Yes, I think so.
Do you have a particular section or sentiment in Lahiri and Ferrante’s books that is your favourite? Why?
It is hard to say. I think, in Lahiri, I like her chapter about going through the woods gathering words and filling her basket with words. I think that is quite a wonderful idea. In Ferrante, there are so many great passages, the beginning of My Brilliant Friend or where the two girls are first going to know each other or in The Days of Abandonment when she finds herself literally locked in the apartment. It is such an incredible emotional examination.
How do you translate the cultural nuances into English? Is it challenging?
For some things, you can add an explanatory word and you can explain things. For example, there is a party called the MSI [Movimento Sociale Italiano] and the easiest way to say is that it is a neo-fascist party. That is not a very subtle example, but I think some things are just lost. There are cultural nuances, cultural echoes that the English reader isn’t going to get, but you can just hope that some flavour of it comes through, which is in the fact. In the case of Ferrante, in the setting of Naples, the details of Naples, some of that I hope is communicated.
Ferrante’s sentences are long, dense and have an emotional intensity. Is it difficult to put those emotions into English, which doesn’t have the colour and cadence of Italian?
Yes, it is. Obviously, I am trying to do it in the same way to keep something of the Italian structure because I think it is very effective.
What do you enjoy more – writing, translating or editing [she has edited writers including John Updike, Ian Frazier and Adam Gopnik]? How do you separate the writer from the translator psychologically?
I don’t really write, but I like both editing and translating. I don’t think it is really a question of separation. I don’t think I become the writer, but I think in some sense inhabit the writer’s words. I am sort of dealing with the words and not really inhabiting the writer.
Does it make it more difficult to translate when you know the author only through her writings, or do you know the real Elena Ferrante?
Well, I don’t know the real Elena Ferrante. No, it doesn’t make it difficult. I have actually translated a lot of dead writers [laughs] so it is not that different from translating from a writer I don’t know. The other person I have been very involved with in the last ten years is Primo Levi. He was not around though there have been plenty of people who have interpreted him. [If I don’t know the author] it is not that difficult and I don’t feel that something is missing. If I have questions, I ask the editors and the editors ask her [Ferrante].
After translating the Neapolitan quartet, do you think you view Naples in a different light?
I probably view it, I think, in the light that may be I know a little bit more about it than I knew before. I have been there a few times, but it is not a city I know very well. I have never lived there or spent a long time there.
You have made translation a skill to be celebrated as much as writing. When did you know you were going to be a celebrity translator?
[Laughs] Never. I always say that it is kind of an oxymoron. Translators are usually the least celebrated, the least known of people working in literary ways. Usually, the translator doesn’t get any attention.
What draws you to Italian and Italy?
I had wanted to learn Italian for a long time, but I really wanted to learn Italian when I read Dante and I really wanted to read Dante in Italian. To me, a lot of it is the language. Italian is an incredibly beautiful, expressive language. I like it there [Laughs.]
Do you see yourself moving from New Jersey to live in Italy? If so, which Italian city would that be?
Yes, I think I might someday move to Rome. I probably wouldn’t live there full time, but I certainly would spend more time there. I do go to Italy at least once a year, sometimes more. In the last 20 years I have probably gone once or twice a year.
Do you see technology becoming sophisticated enough to translate books in the future without losing the emotional essence?
No, I really don’t think so. It’s certainly true that things like Google Translate are much more sophisticated than they used to be, but nevertheless you have got to have a person who is making a decision when it comes to literary translation. You will always have to have a person deciding what the ultimate right word is in any particular context. I don’t think Google is reading the context exactly. It can’t ever read the context in a sense. There has to be some kind of intention that a machine doesn’t have.
Which writer have you most enjoyed translating?
Every writer I have ever translated has been interesting in one way or another. I loved working on Ferrante, but I also loved working on Primo Levi and Pasolini and others. Really, probably there is none that I didn’t like in some way.
Is there any one book that has changed your life?
No. I think translating Ferrante has changed my life [Laughs]. I just mean my day-to-day life. I have never spoken publicly or made presentations of books so that’s different. I mean it is a role that I never expected to have in my life.
And now you are travelling the world giving interviews.
What are your current projects?
I am just finishing a re-translation of a book by Pasolini. It is going to be called Street Kids in English. Frantumaglia, a collection of interviews and writings by Ferrante, is coming out in November.
Neena Bhandari is a Sydney-based foreign correspondent.