Later today Issue 3 of Shiny New Books will appear and, with it my ruminations on the first three Neapolitan novels of the phenomenon that is Elena Ferrante. To coincide with that, Ann Goldstein, who works as an editor at The New Yorker and translates Ferrante’s novels into English, talks here about her career as a translator, the third and most recently released Neapolitan novel and her desert island books.
How did you become a literary translator?
Somewhat by accident. An Italian manuscript came to The New Yorker, where I am an editor, and at the time I was the only person who could read Italian; the idea was that I would read it and then write a polite rejection. But I decided to translate it, and it was published in the magazine. The manuscript was Chekhov in Sondrio by Aldo Buzzi (September 7, 1992).
How did you come to be Elena Ferrante’s translator?
I was asked by Europa Editions (or rather its parent, the Italian publisher e/o) to submit a sample translation from The Days of Abandonment. The editors liked it, and I went on from there.
Are there any particular challenges in translating her Neapolitan novels? How long does it take you to translate each volume? Are there passages where you need to be creative because the Italian idiom doesn’t easily translate into English?
The language is very dense; the sentences can be long and complex. It is hard to maintain the intensity and the rush or pileup of words and at the same time maintain a syntax that reads like English. She doesn’t actually write in dialect, fortunately for me, but there are occasional Neapolitan words and of course there are local references: those are tricky, because you don’t want to overexplain but you don’t want an English or American reader to be baffled by something that any Italian would know. In the case of the stradone, for example, the big street at the edge of the neighborhood, I decided to define it and then leave the word in Italian, because none of the English options seemed to have the right tone, whereas I did decide to use “neighborhood” for rione, even though I think rione has a more localized, urban connotation.
It’s hard to say how long it takes me, since I also have a day job. I usually do a first draft pretty quickly but revising can be very slow. I think I worked on Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay over a period of about four or five months.
As for being creative, I try not to be; I try to find solutions that do not stray too far from the Italian.
Do you have a favourite section of the Neapolitan Novels? Which is it and why?
I have a lot of favorite passages, but one that stands out is Elena’s visit to Lila in the sausage factory. First of all there is the horror you feel, along with Elena, as she enters the place, with its rudeness, its hostility, in a sense reflected in the work: sausage stuffing, mixing, stripping meat off carcasses. And then it presents a sort of microcosm of the relationship between Lila and Elena: their separateness, their closeness, Elena’s misreadings. Also it is dramatic, from Elena’s shocked entry into the factory and encounters with the workers to Lila’s burning of the book when Elena leaves.
Which of your translations gave you the greatest pleasure and for what reasons?
Most of my translations have been a pleasure, and each has been challenging in a different way. Certainly Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have been both: it’s impossible not to become involved with the characters, almost as if they were part of your life, and to feel a kind of emptiness when the translation is finished. Another book I loved working on—I was part of a team of translators—is the Zibaldone by the nineteenth-century poet Giacomo Leopardi. It’s a huge work, essentially a kind of intellectual diary or day book. One of the first books I translated was Petrolio, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, his last, unfinished novel. I didn’t know much about Pasolini, and working on it was like entering a new world. And really that could be said in a certain sense of every translation: even if the book is not immediately sympathetic, because you are involved in it in such a detailed, word-for-word way, it becomes compelling.
Which has been your most challenging translation project to date?
My most challenging project has been The Complete Works of Primo Levi, to be published by Norton/Liveright next fall. That has also been a team project, but I am both a translator, of three books out of the fourteen, and the editor, so there was the additional challenge of editing the translations done by others, and trying to maintain a consistency through the many books.
Which three works of Italian literature would you take to the proverbial desert island and why?
Perhaps the above mentioned Zibaldone, La Storia, by Elsa Morante, and—the obvious—Dante. They represent three centuries, and you would never get bored reading them.
You are allowed another book to take for translation purposes. Which would it be and why?
I’d have plenty to occupy me if I had the Zibaldone. First of all it’s very long. Second, it is extremely complex from a linguistic and syntactical point of view, so you would never be bored, though you might be frustrated, and finally it gives you a lot to think about—philosophy, morality, language, history.