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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

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