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

Ann Goldstein is an editor at <em>The New Yorker</em>. She says she tries to stick to the text when she translates. "You're not trying to write your own version of it," she says.<em></em>
Courtesy of Ann Goldstein
Ann Goldstein is an editor at The New Yorker. She says she tries to stick to the text when she translates. "You're not trying to write your own version of it," she says.

Ferrante Fever goes something like this: You pick up one of Elena Ferrante's books because a friend told you that you had to read it. You read a few pages, and then before you know it, it's 3:00 o'clock in the morning, you've finished the book, and you're on the hunt for the other three titles in the Neapolitan series.

This cultural phenomenon comes our way via translation — the novels were translated from the Italian by New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein. Ferrante is famously private — she gives no interviews, no one knows who she is — so Goldstein has become an unintentional face of the series.

But just in case anyone was wondering if Goldstein is Ferrante, she'd like to clear that up right away: "No, I am not. I can say that without equivocation," she tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "And I can also say I don't know who she is."

Goldstein learned Italian late in life. "I had this sense that I wanted to read Dante in Italian," she says. So she signed up for an Italian class at The New Yorker.

Goldstein talks with Wertheimer about her recent projects; in addition to translating Ferrante's latest, The Story of the Lost Child, she's also translated Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words, and edited Primo Levi's complete works.

Interview Highlights

On trying to take a feeling from one language, and express it in another

Well naturally that's my goal. You can't possibly achieve that in a perfect way because there's so many things you have to take into consideration. You know, think about every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and do what you can.

On whether she liked the Neapolitan novels

I loved these books. ... It's really the story of a young woman, or two women, growing up in Naples in a poor neighborhood. 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. I think that even though I didn't live in Italy in those years, it did cover that same type of generational upbringing that someone like me might've had in America.

On her philosophy — or lack thereof — for approaching different writers

I don't have a philosophy. If I had a philosophy, it's that I'm kind of literal minded. For example, I would never translate poetry — it's too hard, there are too many levels. 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, then you have to think about what that word means in the sentence, then you have to read the sentence in the paragraph — you're sort of building up like that; that's my philosophy.

On how she thinks of her job — writer, collaborator, facilitator?

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

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