At this year’s ATA conference at Palm Springs, the Italian Language Division and the Literary Division are delighted to have Ann Goldstein as our special guest. After years editing the New Yorker, Goldstein is now the translator of major Italian authors and is best known as the English-language voice of Elena Ferrante. Spurred partly by the mystery around Ferrante’s identity, Goldstein has become one of the rare cases of a translator who has stepped out of the shadows, is no longer invisible, and has even become famous. Tradurre asked her a few questions to get to know her better before the conference.
First of all, can you tell us how it all started? What got you interested in the Italian language and culture?
In my second or third year of college, I took a Dante class. I immediately fell in love with the language and with the poem itself—so much so that I took the same class again the following year. We read a parallel-text edition and, having studied French and Latin, I was able to work out much of the Italian, but it inspired in me a desire to read Dante in Italian. It was almost 20 years before I was able to do so. While I was working as a copy editor at The New Yorker, my latent desire to read Dante in Italian became more overt, and I somehow managed to convince some of my colleagues that they, too, wanted to read Dante in Italian. One of them was then studying Greek at Columbia, and among her classmates was the daughter of Maristella Lorch, a famous Dante professor at Columbia. We had a class in the office and after a year of studying Italian grammar we read the entire Divine Comedy, in the course of several years. The Italian class continued for many years after that.
How did you come to the decision to translate from Italian?
Like most literary translators, I began translating almost by accident. We had been studying Italian for four or five years, when the artist Saul Steinberg sent Robert Gottlieb, who was then the editor of The New Yorker, a book by a writer named Aldo Buzzi. Buzzi was a friend of Steinberg’s—they had studied architecture together in Milan, before the war. Gottlieb wanted to write Steinberg a note, so he gave me the book, since he knew I was studying Italian, and said, “Just read enough so that I’ll be able to say something nice to Saul.” I read the whole book—it is quite short—and decided to try to translate it, as a challenge to myself, a kind of exercise, and a way of studying Italian more closely and intimately, from the inside, so to speak. It quickly became something more than that: the work fascinated and absorbed me. And then the translation was published in The New Yorker. Entitled Chekhov in Sondrio, it is a kind of memoir-reflection about Italy and Russian literature. So I came to translation by this somewhat informal route, rather than by formal, academic study of the literature, or through day-to-day life in Italy.
Do you generally choose the authors/books you translate or is it the publishers who propose them to you?
I think almost all my work has come from publishers who proposed books to me, and I have been incredibly lucky, in that these books have almost always been by very good—even great—writers. Leopardi, Primo Levi, Pasolini, Buzzi, Baricco and now Elena Ferrante. These writers are so different from each others.
Can you tell us something about your professional (and personal) history, referring to this rich and diversified journey?
As I said, most of these projects have come to me from publishers or similar routes. Primo Levi was a huge project, conceived by Robert Weil, an editor at Liveright /Norton, to bring all of Levi’s works into a single English edition. In that case I did some of the translations and edited the others: it was a project I was involved in for eleven years. The Leopardi was also a group project, but in that case I was one of a team of translators, working with both an Italian and an English editor. At the start of the project, in fact, the translators all got together with the editors over a weekend and talked about various words and concepts. The second book I translated was Pasolini’s Petrolio: a complex draft of a novel, unfinished at his death, which was a real trial by fire for an inexperienced translator. But I learned a lot about translation and about Pasolini, and I sort of fell in love with his writing, especially his novels, which are scarcely known in America.
Mr. Gwyn’s English translation was much appreciated, someone wrote that the English version has a higher degree of authenticity, and that “Mr. Gwyn succeeds in owning its material fully only in translation”, after having been re-imagined in another language. Can you tell us about the work you did for this novel?
That was a very generous assessment (I think from Stiliana Milkova) and I’m very flattered by it. I think Baricco isn’t much appreciated these days in Italy—he’s been around for so long and has written so many books—but I think he’s a wonderful and original writer. I don’t think I worked any differently from the way I usually do, but it may be that the English setting and the English characters somehow came into themselves when the language was English in a way they didn’t in Italian.
How did you come across Ferrante?
Ferrante came to me through Europa Editions. In the early 2000s, Sandro and Sandra Ferri, who ran the Rome-based publishing house Edizioni E/O, decided to open an English-language branch. They had specialized, to an extent, in translations, bringing many Eastern European writers to Italy, and, especially after 2001, they felt that literature could be an important way of making connections and building bridges between cultures. So in 2005 they founded Europa Editions, and to launch this new venture they decided to publish, as their first book, I giorni dell’abbandono, The Days of Abandonment, which is actually Ferrante’s second book, and which they had published in Italy with great success. They asked four or five translators to do a sample, which I think was the first chapter of The Days of Abandonment, and I was chosen.
Ferrante’s four novels were best sellers in Italy too, but the Italian critics received them rather coldly. Why do you think the enthusiasm for Ferrante’s novels ran so high in the States?
I don’t really have a satisfactory answer. As readers we are immersed in the lives of Elena and Lila, we get to know their families, their friends, we experience what happens to them—marriages, births, deaths, loves, hatreds—over some six decades. We see them grow up and change and age and, in some cases, die, as we do with people in our own lives. It’s not so much that we identify with the details of these lives—most of us did not grow up amid the violence and poverty of an outlying neighborhood of Naples, Elena and Lila’s childhood world. But I think we do identify with, and recognize, the people themselves and their relationships with each other and with life, and, perhaps, with their desire to find order or sense in their lives. Ferrante’s ability to analyze, and dramatize, such emotions, to excavate them (to use a term she uses herself), is compelling and moving.
What was your approach in translating Ferrante’s novels : domestication or foreignization?
I suppose that all translators try to steer a middle course between the two, but I would say that these days, in a more “global” world, the tendency is more toward foreignization. For example, I wouldn’t translate the word “via” in a street name, and would most likely say Piazza San Marco rather than St. Mark’s Square.
What was the main challenge you faced?
Ferrante’s prose is dense; she can use a lot of words, not in a redundant way but in order to get at the precise truth of, say, an emotion, and because she is often describing emotional states. It can be tricky to preserve the intensity and the momentum created by the rush or pileup of words within an English syntax and without losing the meaning. Many readers have pointed out her tendency to write in run-on sentences; I think it’s one of the ways in which she achieves that intensity, that force, and though it’s true that Italian sustains such sentences more easily than English, I’ve tried to preserve the style as far as possible.
We read that you edited the English subtitles for the TV series of My Brilliant Friend. Can you tell us something about this specific work, and how was dealing with this different perspective?
Actually I edited the subtitles only for the first two episodes. It was an interesting process, to try to convey a character’s words in a short space and in an idiomatic way. I was working not from a script but from a transcript—or rather, two transcripts, one in Neapolitan and one in Italian—of what the actors actually said onscreen. So yes, it was interesting, and I would certainly want to do it for any film made from a book I’d translated, but I don’t foresee it replacing books.
Miriam Hurley has been translating from Italian to English since 2000 and earned her ATA certification in 2001. In the years since, she has lived in Oregon, New York, and, mostly, Florence. Combining her fascination with human behavior and language, she most likes translating topics related to social sciences (with tourism and design on the side).
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