Ann Goldstein: 'I try to make it really clear that I am not Elena Ferrante'

The Italian author’s translator on how they work together, New York’s terrifying lockdown, and her favourite novelists

Ann Goldstein is a New York-based translator, renowned for her work on the acclaimed novels of the enigmatic and pseudonymous Elena Ferrante. Goldstein has also translated Primo Levi and Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as a host of other great Italian language writers, living and dead. She is also head copy-editor at the New Yorker, which she joined in 1974. Her latest work is a translation of The Lying Life of Adults, the first Ferrante novel to be published since the bestselling Neapolitan quartet.

You have been translating Elena Ferrante for 16 years. How do you manage to convey the strange, rhythmic simplicity of her voice?
It’s hard to answer that type of question. A lot of it has to do with my relation to the Italian words on the page. The first draft is the words as they are, more or less in the order they appear. It’s pretty straightforward. But most of the time there is then some shaping of that language into an English that reads like English but still contains some suggestion of the Italian. I’m not sure quite how, but it does. In my first draft I look at the Italian; in the second I am still working with the Italian and trying to solve problems I couldn’t solve first time around. Then, eventually, I try to read just the English, without the Italian, but I never can, because there’s always something I need to go back to check. Sometimes I find I’ve gone too far away from the Italian; sometimes I find I need to go further away.

How difficult was it to move from the narrator Elena in the Neapolitan quartet to a new voice altogether in this latest novel?
It’s definitely a challenge, because Giovanna [the heroine of The Lying Life of Adults] is a teenager. That’s very different for me than writing from the perspective of someone in her 60s, like Elena in the Neapolitan quartet. I was surprised. I wasn’t prepared to go back to life as a teenager. But I got over it.

You are best known for your work with two very different writers, Primo Levi and Ferrante. We think of her as emotional and him as austere, but is that oversimplifying?
I think she’s definitely got a hard edge. Just the way she sort of digs into people’s emotions is harsh. And sometimes the language is harsh. And he is austere, but his sentences are beautiful, elaborate and well balanced. There’s a similarity in the way that each of their sentences have structure, a sense of purpose.

How do you work with Ferrante, whose identity remains shrouded in secrecy? Does she comment on your translation?
If I have questions, I send them to the publisher and they send them on to her. I wouldn’t describe it as a collaborative process. Sometimes it is, especially when we were doing those Guardian pieces [a weekly column in Weekend magazine between 2018-19]. It was a different type of writing and there were these tight deadlines, there was a little more back and forth. Always through the publishers, but there was a little more of a collaborative feeling. Generally, no. She doesn’t participate.

How do you feel about the fact that some people seem to look to you to speak for Ferrante?
I try to make it really clear that I’m not her. I’m happy to represent the books and people seem to like to have a figure associated with them. But it’s also, to me, about promoting the figure of the translator.

Do you think translators are finally getting the recognition they deserve?
Definitely more attention is being paid to translators and they’re getting more credit, but there’s still a long way to go. Now this is something I don’t really care about, but it’s often a battle to have your name on the cover of a book. Plus, most reviews of translation will have one word about the translation – I don’t know… “sufficient”. I used to have an image that I’d have a charm bracelet and each charm would be an adjective from a review of one of my translations.

Why did you choose Italian?
I studied French and Latin when I was young, and Italian seemed like a better version of each of those. It’s such a beautiful language.

How did you spend lockdown?
In New York. The beginning was terrifying. Every day there were thousands of cases. I barely went out of my apartment. Now New York has some of the lowest rates of anywhere. So many places are closed, so many places closed permanently, and so many people are gone.

What will happen in the November elections?
I have no idea. And I’m terrified.

What books are on your bedside table?
Sogni e Favole by Emanuele Trevi, Phineas Redux [by Anthony Trollope]. I’ve been rereading the Palliser novels for several years. There’s a book by a German writer called Esther Kinsky called Grove. I like it very much.

How do you organise your books?
I have an Italian section and an English section and they are arranged alphabetically within that.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I read everything. I read War and Peace. I had no idea what it was about, but I read it.

What living authors do you most admire?
I have no idea. I don’t read that much fiction. I read a lot of 19th-century novels – Trollope and Dickens. Whenever I went to Italy to work, I’d always take Trollope or James, so I had the sound of English in my head as well as Italian. As far as nonfiction goes, I love Vivian Gornick. She’s an extraordinary writer.

• The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein) is published by Europa Editions (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

Contributor

Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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