Translator Behind Elena Ferrante Novels Says Her Job Is To Be An 'Enabler' Ann Goldstein is the translator for the mysterious novelist's popular Neapolitan series. She says her role is to "enable someone to express him or herself as much as he or she possibly can."

Translator Behind Elena Ferrante Novels Says Her Job Is To Be An 'Enabler'

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But we're not done with Italian novelists. Does this sound like something you've experienced? You picked up Elena Ferrante's novel "The Brilliant Friend" (ph). Someone told you you had to read it. You finished it at 3 o'clock in the morning and then got your hands on the rest of the books, only to lose hours of your life to the Ferrante "Neapolitan Novels." That is Ferrante fever.

It's a cultural phenomenon, and of course, it comes our way via translation. The novels were translated into English by New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein. And she has been busy. She's also the translator of Jhumpa Lahiri's new book, which is in Italian, "In Other Words." And her latest project, she edited Primo Levi's complete works, which was released last year.

Ferrante herself is a mystery. She's never done in-person interviews. She communicates by email, and she remains largely unknown to the public. So naturally, the first thing I ased Ann Goldstein was if she was Elena Ferrante.


WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: I can say that without equivocation. And I can also say that I don't know who she is.

WERTHEIMER: OK, that was my next question.

Now, you learned Italian relatively late in life, right? I mean, you were not raised in Italy or anything. How did it happen?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I really had wanted to learn Italian for a long time. I think ever since - or even maybe even before I had read Dante. And I just sort of had this idea that I wanted to read Dante in Italian. And then in my office, we actually had a class - an Italian class.

WERTHEIMER: That's at The New Yorker?

GOLDSTEIN: At The New Yorker.

WERTHEIMER: Do you feel that what you're doing is trying to recreate a style or recreate the feeling that one would have if one were able to read it in Italian?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, naturally, that's my goal. I mean, I'm sure that that's - it can't be. You can't possibly achieve that in a perfect way because there are so many things that you have to take into consideration. You know, think about every word. Think about every sentence, every paragraph and do what you can (laughter).

WERTHEIMER: Did you like these books? Did they appeal to you? I hope they did since you had to live with them for a relatively long time.

GOLDSTEIN: I loved these books. I mean, I'm person of about the same generation as the author, maybe a little young but not that much (laughter). And I think that it's really like the story of one woman or of two women growing up together in Naples in a poor neighborhood. And then the way that they get out of it - or don't get out of it - that's part of it, but it's also the story of the mid-20th century in Italy. So it's really like a social, historical and personal novel. And I think that even though, of course, I didn't live in Italy in those years, it does cover the same type of generational upbringing that someone like me might have had in America, in the United States.

WERTHEIMER: You also translated Primo Levi. Now, that's got to be a very different experience. Do you sort of have a philosophy about how you approach these writers in Italian?

GOLDSTEIN: I don't really have a philosophy. I mean, if I have a philosophy, it's that I'm kind of literal-minded. For example, I would never translate poetry (laughter). I think it's just too hard. There's too many levels. I mean, not that prose doesn't have many levels, but it's more grounded.

I like to think of the individual words, then you put the word in the sentence and the sentence, then you have to think about how - what that word means in the sentence. And then you have to read the sentence in the paragraph. I mean, you're sort of building up like that. And I think that's really - if that's a philosophy, that's my philosophy.

WERTHEIMER: But still...


WERTHEIMER: ...That's very different from Elena Ferrante, from Jhumpa Lahiri.

GOLDSTEIN: Primo Levi's - I mean, he's a very different kind of writer. He's a much more formal writer. He's a much more -almost detached. I mean, I wouldn't really say that he's detached ultimately. But he does write as a scientist, and so he describes things very - in great detail, very carefully. But I think that if you are sticking to the text, essentially, you're not trying to write your own version of it. I mean, of course, it is your own version of it. And every translator would probably have a different version. But I think that that's what keeps the writers from being individual in English. They may be my English, but I don't think that Ferrante sounds like Levi.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think about your literary life? Do you see yourself as a writer or a collaborator or a facilitator? How would you describe what your literary life - how would you define it?



GOLDSTEIN: My day job, I'm essentially a copy editor. And I think it's - there are certain similarities because you're dealing with words. You're trying to enable someone to express him or herself as well as he or she possibly can. And I think, in a sense, that's what translation is. I mean, you're expressing something that's originally in one language in another language.

WERTHEIMER: Ann Goldstein is an editor at The New Yorker magazine. She translated Elena Ferrante's "Neapolitan" quartet and is the editor and translator of the recently released works of Primo Levi.

Thank you very much.

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you.

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