New York-based translator Ann Goldstein has been translating the works of Elena Ferrante since 2004 when she submitted a sample translation to Europa Editions for Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and was selected as the book’s translator. Thus began a long-term association with the enigmatic Italian writer whom Goldstein, like the rest of the world, has never met, and whose “Neapolitan Quartet” novels—in Goldstein’s translation—have sold over two million copies in North America and been adapted into a successful HBO series. Aside from having translated all of Ferrante’s works, including most recently, The Lying Life of Adults, Ann Goldstein is also renowned for translating three works by Primo Levi and overseeing nine translators in the colossal project of publishing Levi’s complete works in English; at almost 3,000 pages, the three-volume collection, edited by Goldstein, was published in 2015. In addition, she has translated other Italian authors, including Alessandro Baricco and Pier Paolo Pasolini. I am grateful that she took the time to answer some questions about her craft.
You became a translator by accident. How did it happen?
Most translators got started by accident, I think. In my case, I was working at The New Yorker, and we were a group that had been studying Italian for a few years. The artist Saul Steinberg sent the editor a book by a friend of his, a writer named Aldo Buzzi. The editor knew that I was studying Italian and gave me the book. I really liked it and decided to translate it, not so much because I was interested in translation, but because I thought that it was a way of understanding the language, another way of studying Italian. My translation of it—“Chekhov in Sondrio”—was published in The New Yorker; it’s about the relationship of Italians to Russian literature, which is intense. The book in which the essay appears is called Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels.
What surprised you most when you embarked on the translation path?
I had been a copy editor for years. Copy editing and translation are different processes, but they have a lot of similarities. In some ways I wasn’t surprised that I liked translation because I had been dealing with words and sentences in that kind of detailed way for most of my career, so it wasn’t a big switch for me. When you’re an editor or a copy editor, you’re the silent partner of the writer. It’s a similar kind of relationship to the text… not exactly the same, obviously, because you’re doing a lot more as a translator. But in both processes, you’re trying to allow the writer to be as expressive as possible, while staying within his or her own voice. So, for me, the transition into translation was natural.
What is your initial approach to a source text?
When I started out, I used to read the book first. Lately, I don’t do that anymore; partly it’s a time issue, partly it’s fun to just type as you read. I do a really fast, messy first draft. I think that’s another thing that translators have in common; they joke: “My first draft is messier than yours!” I don’t try to solve problems right away, but I look up many words, including words that I know, and I will often put down two or three choices even at that early stage. Especially where I realize it’s going to be difficult, I write two or three ideas. Then I go back and revise the first draft. In the second draft I try to make it readable and to solve the major problems. But it’s likely that I’ll do two or three more drafts. I also print it out and read it on paper at a certain point. You see things in a different way when you read it on paper.
How do you negotiate this dance between your own creativity and staying close to the original?
My goal is not to be too creative and to really stay with the author. Different translators have different ideas about translation and about the process. Based on the kind of reader I am and the kind of work I’ve done in my life, I try to be faithful to the text. A translator will often read the translation through without looking at the original text, or just looking at the text when he or she has to, but I almost always give up after a few pages; I go back to the original. Sometimes you see that you’ve gone too far, and other times, you haven’t gone far enough. There’s this constant back-and-forth.
What do you find most challenging in translating Italian to English?
The obvious thing is that, because Italian has genders and verbs have so much information in them, the sentences are much more flexible. An adjective doesn’t have to be attached to its noun whereas in English, it does. Or a verb can come at the beginning of a sentence in Italian and be followed by three or four subjects, and the verb signals to you that more than one subject is coming up. Mostly, the syntactical aspects are the hardest for me. Not to mention the fact that Italian has so many more verb tenses and moods.
In translating Elena Ferrante, you really capture the intensity of emotion, the rhythm, and the music of her writing. Do you sense a certain musicality of languages, in both Italian and English?
I think about it. Some people say it’s good to read aloud if you have time. I read in my head all the time, and I do pay attention to rhythm, to the sound. I think that sound does play a large part but a lot of it is intuitive; you can find a rhythm that works in English. For example, I was just working on something and there were two adjectives in Italian that sounded perfectly good together. But I realized that in English I had to reverse them. So, there’s always an awareness of rhythm.
When you translate several works by the same author, does the process of translating that author’s writing become easier or does it feel new each time?
I can’t say it’s completely new every time, especially with a writer like Ferrante; there are certain things you recognize: the shape of the sentences, and certain words she uses. But it is always different, and every book is going to have its own challenges. Ferrante is a good example of how different the syntax of Italian is; many of her sentences are very long. There might be moments where you recognize how you solved something in an earlier book. But it can also feel like it’s all new.
I read that Jhumpa Lahiri was involved in the revisions of your translation of her memoir, “In Other Words.” How is it, as a translator, to get revisions from the author?
That was such a special case. Most of the people I’ve translated are either deceased or don’t have a good enough mastery of English to judge the translation. Jhumpa is a writer in English, and I wasn’t going to try to sound like her. Her book in Italian is very straightforward; since it’s about learning Italian, it gets more complicated as the book goes on, so it’s interesting. Of course, she read the translation, and mostly she was fine with it, but at the end she changed several words. Since she knows both languages, it was fine. We did spend one afternoon going over it.
I know that some bilingual writers prefer not to translate their own works.
When Jhumpa wrote this book in Italian, she didn’t want to translate it herself. The way she explained it was that if she translated it herself, she would rethink it, rewrite it, and it wouldn’t be the same. But she did translate a novel she wrote in Italian, and it was recently published.
You have succeeded in placing a spotlight on the essential role of translators, who, in general, are not acknowledged enough. Why do you think translators are not always granted the importance they deserve? And what would you like to see happen, maybe starting in educational institutions, so that everyone becomes aware of how crucial translators are in ensuring that an author’s work has an appealing, long life in other countries?
I don’t know why translators are not acknowledged enough; I guess they’ve always been seen more like an afterthought. In translated books from other centuries, and even from the early twentieth century, often you can’t even find the name of the translator. Maybe translation was always taken for granted in some way. The reason that I allowed myself to be put in the spotlight, which is not something that I ever imagined I would do, is so that translators can get a little more attention. In America, if more people would learn another language and if written translation would be a part of language learning, even if it is not meant to be literary, that would help spread more understanding about this process.
Photo courtesy of Ann Goldstein