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The Face of Ferrante


The translator discusses public secrets, private identities, and the final Neapolitan novel.

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Last March, I began thinking constantly about a stranger named Ann Goldstein. Things like: What would Ann Goldstein do? I bet Ann Goldstein never has to look things up on grammar blogs. I wonder how Ann Goldstein felt about doing that sex scene.

Most readers who succumb to the phenomenon known as Ferrante Fever become obsessed with the Italian writer whose pen name is Elena Ferrante, and with the friends Elena and Lila, who form the center of Ferrante’s tetralogy known as the Neapolitan novels. I was no different, only my obsession also extended to Ferrante’s translator into English, Ann Goldstein. I fell under the spell of Ferrante-Goldstein just as I was working on line edits for my translation of The Complete Stories, by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Lispector, or Clarice, as she is known in Brazil, inspires a similarly passionate devotion and is now having her own moment of Lispectormania in English.

As I sped through the first three Neapolitan Novels, then lingered over the leaner, less addictive, yet equally absorbing novels Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter, I kept comparing Ferrante and Lispector, Goldstein and myself. I was nearing the end of a delirious two years spent translating a story collection that spanned Lispector’s entire writing life. I followed her development from the age of nineteen in 1940 through her death in 1977, as she invented heroines at different stages of women’s experience—girls, young ladies, wives, mothers, grandmothers, widows. This trajectory came echoing back to me as I accompanied Ferrante’s heroine Elena from My Brilliant Friend onward, as she grows up and becomes a writer, narrating the lives of women in 1950s Italy to the present.

I was also struck by a certain force, even violence, in both Ferrante’s and Lispector’s writing. Their styles don’t always converge, yet both have a way of handling a description, or even a single sentence, with a stark originality and truth that can punch you in the gut. I’ve felt alternately seduced and trapped by both authors, who envelop the reader in their characters’ interior worlds.

Lispector’s The Complete Stories was my first book-length translation. By the end of it, I was a transformed woman. I was also a wreck, going cross-eyed from pages and pages of proofs, anxiously tweaking words, worn out from the emotional weight of Lispector’s characters. I wished I were Ann Goldstein, as I imagined her: unflappable, expertly laying down “elegant, burnished English,” as James Wood described her translations of Ferrante in The New Yorker. Her work possesses an assurance that comes from over twenty years of translating, ten of them spent with Ferrante’s books, as well as a singular training—forty years at The New Yorker, where she is head of the copy department.

Last August, I traveled to New York for the launch of Lispector’s The Complete Stories and wrote to Goldstein asking if she’d like to meet. I wanted to bask in her aura of a nonchalant badass but also had practical questions on translation, Ferrante, the mysteries of the publishing world. We had cocktails and salads on a Friday night near The New Yorker offices at One World Trade Center. For Goldstein, September would bring the launch of not only the final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, but also the three-volume The Complete Works of Primo Levi, for which Goldstein served as editor, coordinating the work of nine translators besides herself. Her forthcoming translations include a collection of Ferrante’s interviews and essays called Frantumaglia: Bits and Pieces of Uncertain Origin, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s novel The Street Kids, and In Other Words, a book by Jhumpa Lahiri about Italy, her recently adopted home.

In November, Goldstein visited San Francisco for a panel on Primo Levi. She came over for tea on a Sunday afternoon, where we took up the threads of our previous conversation, including both the public secrets of Ferrante and Lispector, and all those that cannot be divulged.

Katrina Dodson for Guernica

Guernica: What has it been like to accompany Ferrante’s work and its reception over the course of ten years and seven novels? How has your experience of representing her developed over the years, both in translating her and in being called upon to speak on her behalf whenever a new book comes out?

Ann Goldstein: You know, that only really happened recently, that I became the face of Elena Ferrante, if I can even put it like that. Well, her representative in the world, at the moment. When The Days of Abandonment came out, that was the first book that was published in English, and it was well received. But it didn’t make a deep impression in the literary world, and there wasn’t a huge amount of speculation about who she was. But just after My Brilliant Friend came out, James Wood wrote that piece in The New Yorker, and that is considered the turning point of when she began to get attention. The third Neapolitan novel [Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay] was the beginning of Ferrante Fever. It’s only been with the fourth one [The Story of the Lost Child] that I’ve had to do a lot of representing. They couldn’t have the writer, so they would take the translator. I’ve been on panels or discussions with so many different writers, it’s incredible. Last year I did a few events, but not to this extent. I mean, it’s just been wild.

Guernica: It’s interesting, because usually the translator is an anonymous presence.

Ann Goldstein: Right. And besides talking at events, I’ve also been interviewed, which I never was before, except on obscure Italian websites. When this was beginning, I thought, this is a great moment for translators. To have the translator be a figure in the book’s presentation seems like a big thing, especially for a book that’s really popular.

Guernica: I think of Ferrante’s novels in two groups. There are the Neapolitan novels, with their epic, historical sweep, addictive plot twists, and detailed portraits of neighborhood life in Naples. And then there is the trio of Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter, which feel sparser in their language, more claustrophobic in how they enter into their heroines’ psyches. Time speeds up in the Neapolitan novels, and I’ve burned through some of them in just a couple days, whereas time seems to move very slowly in the other novels, which make for a more arduous read. What were the differences for you in translating the Neapolitan series versus the others?

Ann Goldstein: The Days of Abandonment was the first one that I translated and the first one that I read. It was a very intense experience because it is such an intense novel. I think in some ways it’s harder, and the language is very dense. It’s so psychological and so much in the mind of the narrator. Of course, the Neapolitan novels are in the mind of someone, but they cover sixty years, in which this person does many different things and has many different experiences, whereas The Days of Abandonment—actually all three of those novels—is in the mind of someone over a very short span of time and basically focused on one experience. So I think in that way they’re harder emotionally, and in terms of the language. In some ways they are harder because they’re more condensed. But you know, it’s all hard [laughs].

The Neapolitan novels have a lot of references to things outside, to things of the world, to culture, politics, the city of Naples. People have mentioned that Naples is like a character in the novels. Actually, some of the hardest things in terms of translation are the descriptions of Naples. At the end of book four [The Story of the Lost Child], where she’s talking about going around Naples with her daughter and the daughter is repeating all the things that Lila’s said about the history of Naples, that is very complex language. The vocabulary and the structure of the sentences are different because they’re so packed with historical references and descriptions. There’s nothing like that in the other books.

Guernica: How do you feel about the Neapolitan series coming to a close?

Ann Goldstein: I was very worried about getting to the end. I thought I would feel upset. And I was worried about how Ferrante was going to end it. Would it be satisfying? Would it not be? I found that it was wonderful. I thought the ending was amazing, that it worked. It didn’t leave me wanting more. I thought it was very emotional. It seemed real and it seemed sad in a very lifelike way. It ended the way you think things happen in life, with many questions unanswered—which you could feel was unsatisfying or even unfair on the part of the author. But I thought, she’s really giving you this woman’s life. And this is what happens in life. And that’s one of the ways that her novels are so affecting. Because they cut into you in a way that’s very lifelike.

Guernica: And they’re messy. The lives in them are messy and difficult.

Ann Goldstein: Yes, I always hesitate to say that something is lifelike. Why is that praised? But what I mean by that is that it’s affecting, in a strong way. It’s as if this is something that could happen to you.

Also, at the end, I had the realization of how much the book is about writing.

Guernica: Especially the last book.

Ann Goldstein: It’s so much about what it’s like to be a writer, to fail as a writer, to look at your books and feel that you haven’t done anything. Whether you’re a writer or not, you can imagine looking at your life and thinking, “What have I done?” What she’s doing in these books is asking, “What does my life mean?” She’s using that concrete image of being a writer and having a friendship, but she’s investigating the meaning of life.

Guernica: It seems that the last book comes full circle, around to Elena Ferrante the author, because ironically, there’s so much about doing publicity as a writer. The character Elena is very involved in promoting her books, and she gets interviewed and there’s the picture of her in the paper.

Ann Goldstein: That’s true. That’s a huge subject—a writer refusing to do publicity but writing about publicity.

Guernica: And writing about it like someone who seems to know what it’s like.

Ann Goldstein: Enough to reject it.

Guernica: You’ve said that you don’t know Elena Ferrante’s real identity. But you’ve clearly developed a sense of what she might be like. For example, you’ve said that you never doubted she was a woman and that you imagine she comes from the same generation as you. What have you learned about her through her writing, which feels so personal even if not directly autobiographical?

Ann Goldstein: What I’ve learned from all these books and from the interviews in Frantumaglia is that she’s obviously an incredibly well-read person. She’s read everything, I think.

Guernica: And she recently wrote the introduction for Sense and Sensibility. That was such a shock to see.

Ann Goldstein: I know. That’s one of the reasons I know that she’s read a lot of things. In The Paris Review she talked about reading Jane Austen. So yes, she’s read a lot. She’s obviously incredibly intelligent. She has a very strong literary background, or formation, but she doesn’t force it on you. It’s not obvious, in that she’s not hitting you over the head with her knowledge of books and literature.

Guernica: In the Neapolitan novels, you get some of Elena’s literary formation, but for me it’s also been through the interviews that I’ve realized, “Oh, you’re reading Donna Haraway and Shulamith Firestone, Judith Butler and Teresa de Lauretis.” And I’ve thought, “Ah, this person’s an intellectual.”

Ann Goldstein: Yes, she’s definitely an intellectual. And she works hard, she revises. There were ten years between her first two novels, Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment. And she doesn’t want to publish anything unless she feels that it’s got to where she wants to get. She has a strong sense of who she is and what she wants to say. And I think that comes out in her work. There are the biographical things—that she grew up in Naples, that she left Naples, that she’s lived in other places. And she’s read all the Italian feminism and French feminism. I think she probably has children. Those are external details. As for how her mind works, she’s very strong-minded. You have to be pretty strong to write those novels, especially the Neapolitan novels, in the sense of having these characters in your head and going deeply into the psychology of all these people in a very specific and detailed and concrete way.

Guernica: Both Ferrante and Lispector write about women who are wives and mothers in countries marked by very traditionally defined gender roles—Italy and Brazil—and who rebel in different ways against these roles. There is a lot of turmoil and conflict in their work, and for me, having to inhabit these feelings so intimately as a translator became just as taxing as the more intellectual work of translation. How does that compare to your experience translating Ferrante? Were you haunted by her characters?

Ann Goldstein: Oh yes. With The Days of Abandonment, partly because it was the first one and partly because it is so haunting, and it’s so concentrated, I was very upset by it. There were things in it that I think everyone recognizes. Like the scene with the key where she thinks she’s locked herself in—I have trouble with keys.

…one naturally identifies to some extent with an “I” female narrator going through something that you recognize whether you’ve gone through it or not.

And with something like that, she’s writing your nightmare. Those things really did upset me and haunt me. I identified with the narrator—one naturally identifies to some extent with an “I” female narrator going through something that you recognize whether you’ve gone through it or not. But many times with Ferrante there’s a point where I feel that I wouldn’t do that, so then I would be really upset by thinking, “Oh, what is this person doing, what’s going to happen, where’s she going to go?” When I started translating the first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend, I had not read the other ones, of course, because they weren’t written yet. So it wasn’t until I got to the end of the last one that I knew the whole story. That was a strange experience: to be reading something, or translating something, that I didn’t really know the end of.

Guernica: You’re taken along for the ride.

Ann Goldstein: In some ways—going back to this idea—it’s like life. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. I didn’t know I was going to go around representing Elena Ferrante. Or trying to speak for her, which of course I can’t, because I’m only the words.

Guernica: Lispector’s Portuguese can be very distorted and ungrammatical at certain moments—she’ll change word endings, use a non-standard preposition, all these things you have to catch and realize, “Oh, that’s not how you’re supposed to say it in Portuguese.” In contrast, Ferrante’s writing feels more fluid. She even seems to be doing the work of translation, as when she tells us that characters are speaking in dialect but she herself doesn’t write in dialect. Can you talk more about what her style is like and the experience of reading her in the original Italian?

Ann Goldstein: It’s interesting because her books do seem very readable in Italian. There are occasional weird idiomatic expressions that are Neapolitan words. She talks so much about people’s use of language. She tells us when someone’s speaking in dialect. She talks about how when Lila wants to, she can speak in a beautiful, educated type of Italian. We don’t really get examples of this, but Ferrante says, “She spoke like this,” or every once in awhile Elena will also fall into dialect. There’s this moment where she no longer wants to speak in dialect, it feels strange to her, but then sometimes she can go back into it. The obvious reason Ferrante doesn’t use dialect is because many Italians wouldn’t understand it. But a second reason may be that, as an Italian professor at CUNY was saying, Neapolitan dialect is very much a spoken language, and if she were writing it, there would be no point, in a way. It would lose the character that it has as a spoken language.

Right now, I’m actually working on a Pasolini novel [The Street Kids], which is really hard, because a lot of it is written in Romanesco, the dialect from Rome. The novel in Italian has a glossary, but the glossary doesn’t have all the words. I found a Romanesco-Italian dictionary, which is helpful, but still not perfect. A lot of the dialogue is not only Roman but slang.

Guernica: How do you navigate the slang?

Ann Goldstein: I’m still struggling with it. It’s one of the hardest things, as you probably know, to translate anything that’s not standard. My policy in general has been not to mess with it, not to try to make some weird English out of it. I just try to be more colloquial in some way. What did you do with Lispector’s odd prepositions?

Guernica: There were moments in which I could bring over some things, but the prepositions were difficult. That’s why Lispector is always going to end up sounding stranger in Portuguese. But she’s not always inventing things, so sometimes it will sound strange to be going along in standard English and then all of a sudden you have just one word that’s different.

Ann Goldstein: That is odd. And it’s kind of hard to leave it.

Guernica: It’s very difficult. And you can’t always do it in English. What holds it together in the original is a sense of rhythm, a certain cadence or way of speaking that sounds like her. So in the English I would try to reproduce a certain rhythm. But one of the benefits of having The Complete Stories is that you can accompany her over all 85 stories and you start to see the patterns. So the more you read her, the more you get that she has these odd twists and turns in her language, and it doesn’t sound so strange.

I think that being an editor, someone who works with words, is very good training for being a translator because it trains you to be attentive to words in a very specific, very concrete, very literal way.

Speaking of standardization, I’m fascinated by the fact that alongside your tremendous translation work, you’ve been at The New Yorker for over forty years, where you are currently head of the copy department. How does your work at The New Yorker intersect with your translation work?

Ann Goldstein: I think that being an editor, someone who works with words, is very good training for being a translator because it trains you to be attentive to words in a very specific, very concrete, very literal way. And I think that’s part of the reason that I have the patience to translate.

Guernica: I think about how much of your stamina must come from all these years at The New Yorker, doing it week in and week out, like clockwork. It must be this incredible literary and linguistic foundation.

Ann Goldstein: Yes, it is. In some ways it’s constricting because I have very strict rules in my head that seem to me to be the way things should sound. I think there’s a myth that all New Yorker writers sound the same—I think that’s ridiculous—but they do all sound grammatical.

Guernica: One of my favorite moments during our conversation in New York was when I asked about what it was like to get to write some dirty and shocking stuff as Elena Ferrante, and you said, “That’s nothing, you should see Pasolini’s Petrolio.” The New Yorker is known for having a more understated, genteel style, especially in past decades. Does writing some of these scenes feel like a release from the more proper nature of your work as a New Yorker editor?

Ann Goldstein: No, it doesn’t seem like a release. It just seems like… those scenes are complicated. I think that physical actions are always hard to describe, to translate. Like, [a pivotal sex scene in the final Neapolitan novel] was really complicated. It was very hard to write it so that the images were correct. Well, first of all the moment is completely horrifying, even though you know he’s a bad guy. It’s an amazing scene. But from the technical point of view of describing it…

Guernica: So with these graphic scenes of sex and all those bodily fluids happening in Ferrante, it seems that you take a very professional approach [laughs].

Ann Goldstein: You know, you kind of have to. I doubt if you’ve actually ever read Petrolio, because about three people in the world have [laughs], but there’s this very, very long scene in the middle of the book where the main character goes to a field somewhere near Rome, and he has something like twenty young guys come up to him and he does… whatever he does with them. So you have to describe these sexual encounters, and getting the body parts, the movements right, the whole thing is very hard!

Guernica: One similarity between your translation of Ferrante’s work and mine with Lispector, is that we both worked with a language editor, that is, an editor who went over every single word in the original language. It’s unusual to have this extra layer of editing in the publishing industry, at least in the U.S. In some ways, it’s even a luxury. What was it like to work with Michael Reynolds at Europa as your editor for the Ferrante books?

Ann Goldstein: We’ve been working together for a long time. There’s usually not all that much. It’s very civilized. He always finds something. There’s always something that you miss, there’s always some mistake somewhere. Or a dropped line. So there’s that kind of thing you can only be grateful for. And then sometimes he’ll just point out a place where he says, “I don’t think this is working,” or he’ll make some suggestions, but there’s not that much. But it is unusual. Does New Directions do that automatically?

Guernica: No. This was Ben Moser’s project as the Lispector series editor, so it was a special situation.

Ann Goldstein: And you had a much more intense time with him. He was much more involved.

Guernica: Yes, and it was him inviting me onto a project that already had multiple translators. One of the goals in having Ben as the series editor has been to have a consistency to Lispector’s voice in English. As you were saying with The New Yorker, there’s a certain “Clarice house style.” But from knowing her work so well and reading the other new translations very carefully, I can see every translator’s individual fingerprints. You just imprint the work, without even meaning to, with your English. Ben has a very active presence as an editor, but I appreciated it. It can be very intense, as with anything in which you’re working very closely with another person. You have to have the same approach to translating, and I think the work is a lot stronger for us discussing a lot of the thornier issues. Just having someone else to talk with about those things is great.

Ann Goldstein: Well, it’s true, that’s a luxury. And I sometimes leave questions in the text for Michael, and I say to him, “What do you think? Should we do it that way?”

Guernica: Yeah, I did that a lot with Ben, especially in the beginning when I was still figuring out my voice for her. I do this thing that my friend calls “the slash game,” where I would say, “One May evening / night,” or “She shivered / trembled.”

Ann Goldstein: That’s my game!

Guernica: You do that too? And then you go back and think about which works better. Because certain words are wobblier than others and you can’t work them out until you really hear them in context. This is a good segue into talking about your work as a language editor on the Primo Levi books. I think it’s incredible that you put out The Complete Works of Primo Levi in September, the same month that the final Ferrante launched. Three volumes, fourteen books, 3,000 pages, and you were working with nine other translators, as well as translating three books yourself. You’re a powerhouse!

Ann Goldstein: Well, that’s just what it looks like. We’d been working on the Levi for ten, eleven years, so it just happened to come out at the same time. I imposed my style, to some extent, for that same reason—I wanted to have a uniform voice, as much as possible. With the books I translated myself, obviously I had a more intimate relationship to them, but with the others, I worked on them and I worked on them over the course of years. Luckily, the copy editor had a copy editor! Norton had someone who oversaw all the copy editing and every pass and kept notes of style things, which was incredible. That was hugely helpful. By that point, I couldn’t remember what I had done.

Guernica: Yeah, you can’t keep it all in your head. I had an Excel spreadsheet at one point where I kept track of all these different key words and how I was translating them, but then it just got to be too complicated!

Ann Goldstein: I’ve never really done that. I’ve thought about that, and I just think it’s kind of impossible, you know? Because, after all, think of a word in English—you don’t always use it in the same way. When I worked on the Leopardi, the Zibaldone, the editors were amazing. It was a much more scholarly project, but they had lists of words and how they were used in different places. But I didn’t do that with Levi. I didn’t even try to do it, actually, and I didn’t even think of doing it, maybe because I don’t know how to use an Excel spreadsheet!

Guernica: I read that the very first story you translated was published in The New Yorker. “Chekhov in Sondrio,” by Aldo Buzzi.

Ann Goldstein: Aldo Buzzi was a friend of Saul Steinberg, the legendary New Yorker artist, who had studied in Italy before the war. Steinberg sent a book by his friend to the editor of The New Yorker, who at the time was Bob Gottlieb, and he knew that I could read Italian and said, “Can you read this as a favor to Steinberg?” So I did and I really liked it. And I thought, “You know, I’m going to try translating it.” I just did it for myself, really. One of the reasons I started translating was because I thought it was a more direct way of studying Italian and getting inside the language. I thought, “What the hell, I’ll give it to Bob and see what he thinks.” And he liked it, so he published it [in the September 14, 1992 issue]. It was kind of serendipitous, the whole thing.

Guernica: And did you also start studying Italian at The New Yorker?

Ann Goldstein: Yes. Because I had always wanted to read Dante in Italian. And it turned out that there were a number of people at The New Yorker who were also interested in studying Italian. We had one year of study and then we started reading Dante, for the next two years. We actually read all of Dante. It was kind of ridiculous. It was just an hour a week. In those days, companies did things like pay for education classes. So if you were studying a language, they would pay for it.

Guernica: That’s amazing. What year was that?

Ann Goldstein: That was 1987, when we started. And that continued until the ’90s. We had that class for many years, and then it turned into a sort of conversation class where we would go out to dinner with a teacher. We’ve recently reinstated it, so we still do it. The truth is, just to hear other people speaking Italian is really worth it. It keeps the sound in your ear.

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3 comments for The Face of Ferrante

  1. Comment by Peter Byrne on January 15, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Ferrante or her narrating characters seem to hold Neapolitan dialect in contempt. It being “very much a spoken language” hardly explains their attitude. Elena often feels aggressed when she overhears spurts of dialect or has them directed at her. This is peculiar, because one doesn’t meet many Neapolitans who feel that way. The lyrics of Neapolitan popular music or the language of the theatre in Neapolitan is no more barbed than equivalents in the national language. Characters’ distaste for dialect appears to be more a distaste for the city and their origins, which they are all fleeing without success. Dialect comes to represent a kind of id they are stuck with. The contrast with Pasolini couldn’t be more marked. Dialect for him is genuine expression and the national language become a hollow make-do imposed by TV. He wrote distinguished poetry in the language of Friuli and used Romanesco to get to the heart of what he called the sub-proletariat, the only social class he had no reservations about.

  2. Comment by Isabella on January 16, 2016 at 10:09 am

    @ Peter Byrne:
    “Characters’ distaste for dialect appears to be more a distaste for the city and their origins, which they are all fleeing without success.”

    That seems to be correct. In Italy, as elsewhere, dialect used to be a marker of the working class. Especially for people of Ferrante’s age: often children of her generation would learn Italian only once they started attending school. The younger generations speak dialect less and less (I understand it when I hear my grandparents, but I can’t speak it).
    Pasolini didn’t come from a poor background, which could perhaps help to explain his fascination for the lower classes and different Italian dialects.
    Italian itself, as a language, has kind of a bizarre history and there is some truth in Pasolini’s feeling that it was artificial. Still, it was a lingua franca that Italy, which is made up of culturally distant territories (Italian dialects very often aren’t mutually understandable, to give you an idea), very much needed in the process of national unification.

  3. Comment by Peter Byrne on January 16, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    I wouldn’t be so bold as to generalize about Italian dialects and the different attitudes their speakers have toward them. But there is something interesting in the way Ferrante uses hers. She’s not reporting what has happened but inventing a story. So when she is so careful to tell us when exactly someone is speaking in dialect or leaves it for Italian, she must be making a dramatic or storyteller’s point. Without actually reproducing dialect, it becomes another one of her tools as a novelist. So we could say that if Naples is a main character in her four-volume cycle, then Neapolitan dialect is at least a significant minor character.

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