Meet the Translator

I don’t become the writer, I inhabit the writer’s words: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator

Ferrante has brought her the fame which the Italian-to-English translator’s body of work should have earned her even earlier.

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.
Well, exactly.

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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Why do our clothes fade, tear and lose their sheen?

From purchase to the back of the wardrobe – the life-cycle of a piece of clothing.

It’s an oft repeated story - shiny new dresses and smart blazers are bought with much enthusiasm, only to end up at the back of the wardrobe, frayed, faded or misshapen. From the moment of purchase, clothes are subject to wear and tear caused by nature, manmade chemicals and....human mishandling.

Just the act of wearing clothes is enough for gradual erosion. Some bodily functions aren’t too kind on certain fabrics. Sweat - made of trace amounts of minerals, lactic acid and urea - may seem harmless. But when combined with bacteria, it can weaken and discolour clothes over time. And if you think this is something you can remedy with an antiperspirant, you’ll just make matters worse. The chemical cocktail in deodorants and antiperspirants leads to those stubborn yellowish stains that don’t yield to multiple wash cycles or scrubbing sessions. Linen, rayon, cotton and synthetic blends are especially vulnerable.

Add to that, sun exposure. Though a reliable dryer and disinfectant, the UV radiation from the sun causes clothes to fade. You needn’t even dry your clothes out in the sun; walking outside on a sunny day is enough for your clothes to gradually fade.

And then there’s what we do to our clothes when we’re not wearing them - ignoring labels, forgetting to segregate while washing and maintaining improper storage habits. You think you know how to hang a sweater? Not if you hang it just like all your shirts - gravity stretches out the neck and shoulders of heavier clothing. Shielding your clothes by leaving them in the dry-cleaning bag? You just trapped them in humidity and foul odour. Fabrics need to breathe, so they shouldn’t be languishing in plastic bags. Tossing workout clothes into the laundry bag first thing after returning home? It’s why the odour stays. Excessive moisture boosts fungal growth, so these clothes need to be hung out to dry first. Every day, a whole host of such actions unleash immense wear and tear on our clothes.

Clothes encounter maximum resistance in the wash; it’s the biggest factor behind premature degeneration of clothes. Wash sessions that don’t adhere to the rules of fabric care have a harsh impact on clothes. For starters, extra effort often backfires. Using more detergent than is indicated may seem reasonable for a tub full of soiled clothes, but it actually adds to their erosion. Aggressive scrubbing, too, is counterproductive as it worsens stains. And most clothes can be worn a few times before being put in the wash, unless of course they are sweat-soaked gym clothes. Daily washing of regulars exposes them to too much friction, hastening their wear and tear.

Different fabrics react differently to these abrasive agents. Natural fabrics include cotton, wool, silk and linen and each has distinct care requirements. Synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, are sensitive to heat and oil.

A little bit of conscious effort will help your clothes survive for longer. You can start by lessening the forces acting on the clothes while washing. Sort your clothes by fabric instead of colour while loading them in the washing machine. This helps save lighter fabrics from the friction of rubbing against heavier ones. It’s best to wash denim materials separately as they are quite coarse. For the same reason, clothes should be unzipped and buttoned before being tossed in the washing machine. Turning jeans, printed clothes and shirts inside out while loading will also ensure any abrasion is limited to the inner layers only. Avoid overloading the washing machine to reduce friction between the clothes.

Your choice of washing tools also makes a huge difference. Invest in a gentler detergent, devoid of excessive dyes, perfumes and other unnecessary chemicals. If you prefer a washing machine for its convenience, you needn’t worry anymore. The latest washing machines are far gentler, and even equipped to handle delicate clothing with minimal wear and tear.


Bosch’s range of top loading washing machines, for example, care for your everyday wear to ensure they look as good as new over time. The machines make use of the PowerWave Wash System to retain the quality of the fabrics. The WaveDrum movement adds a top-down motion to the regular round action for a thorough cleaning, while the dynamic water flow reduces the friction and pulling forces on the clothes.

Play

The intelligent system also creates water displacement for better movement of clothes, resulting in lesser tangles and clothes that retain their shape for longer. These wash cycles are also noiseless and more energy efficient as the motor is directly attached to the tub to reduce overall friction. Bosch’s top loading washing machines take the guesswork away from setting of controls by automatically choosing the right wash program based on the load. All that’s needed is a one-touch start for a wash cycle that’s free of human errors. Read more about the range here. You can also follow Bosch on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Bosch and not by the Scroll editorial team.