I’ve recently finished Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and am still stumbling about in a Neapolitan daze (in fact I’m starting on my little stack of other novels set in Naples, beginning with John Horne Burns’s The Gallery), so I’m pleased to be able to bring you a relevant link, Melinda Harvey’s interview with Ann Goldstein, her English translator. (Warning for those of you who might want to read the books: there are spoilers.) She talks about learning Italian:
Superficially, it was easy because I had studied French and Latin. I had the basic vocabulary and the basic grammatical structures, in a sense. Because I’ve never lived there I don’t have a verbal fluency that I wish I had, you know, street language. I learned my Italian in such an unconventional way, that is to say through reading. I don’t have any academic training and I don’t have “living there” training—I have book training! I often feel that I have big gaps in my ways of understanding things. I don’t speak idiomatic Italian—I have that fluency when I read but not when I walk around.
That’s the same way I know Russian. And here’s an exchange that describes a couple of obscure words:
MH: You translated the Neapolitan novels as they fell off the press, as it were. You didn’t have the full sweep of the novels at your disposal when you began your translation of them. Would you have done certain things differently in terms of the translation had you known what you do now about the series? […]
AG: The obvious example is smarginatura. It appears just once in My Brilliant Friend and then Ferrante doesn’t use the word again until The Story of the Lost Child. And there it becomes this huge, elaborate thing—I don’t think she uses the word again until then, or maybe only once or twice. Just as a one-word example, I might have translated it differently, had I known. I’m not sure. I certainly would have had a much better idea of what she meant; of what it meant to her. Also in Frantumaglia she talks a lot about the word frantumaglia. She says it’s a word that her mother used, and she talks at great length about the many meanings that it has. I’m not even sure if it’s a real Italian word… Literally, it means both “the process of shattering” and “the result of shattering.” So it’s already complicated. And then she talks about how her mother used it in different contexts and how she then adopted it.