Ann Goldstein on Translating Elena Ferrante.

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.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. I’ve read two of Ferrante’s earlier novels, also translated by Ann Goldstein, and while impressed by the novels as stories I found my dislike of Goldstein’s translationese rising to the point that I’ve not been tempted to start the Neapolitan novels. The translationese isn’t constantly intrusive, but every two or three pages it niggles. A paragraph as an example at random (i.e. found after a 2-minute skim) from The Days of Abandonment:

    “That’s enough!” I often shouted, at home, on the street. “I said that’s enough!” I made a gesture of wanting to slap them, I lifted my arm, I seriously felt like it and restrained myself with an effort.

    No English-language fiction writer would write this, unless s/he was intentionally creating a narrator’s voice of nervy clumsiness. That might be justifiable in this novel’s context – but as I understand it Ferrante’s Italian is journeyman standard, literary but without “literary” effects, and not noticeably clumsy. Perhaps Goldstein’s style had improved once she got to the Neapolitan novels? I don’t understand her celebrity translator status except as a phenomenon of transference due to the publicity around Ferrante’s hidden identity.

  2. I agree, and was occasionally annoyed by her translation choices (particularly, as I said in an earlier post, by her unfortunate renditions of invece), but I would urge you to set your trepidation aside and embark on the Neapolitan series—it’s good enough it would overcome even worse translatorial/traductorial problems.

  3. January First-of-May says

    That’s the same way I know Russian.

    And about the same way I know English, ironically – I hardly ever have the opportunity to talk with someone else in English outside online forums, and I have never actually visited an English-speaking country. (Israel doesn’t count – it’s not much more of an English-speaking country than it is a Russian-speaking country.)

    I did have a bit of academic training in English early on, but as far back as I can remember, I went on ahead with reading the textbook, and didn’t have any problems with understanding it (even the sections well in advance of where I was supposed to read).

  4. I am still puzzled by the success that Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have had not just in Italy, but outside of it as well. 🙂

  5. I take it you don’t care for them; can you elaborate a bit on why?

  6. I would like to know your reaction to The Gallery.

  7. I’m enjoying it so far; it’s a collection of short stories alternating with brief reminiscences of the author’s experiences, and the first story was pretty good, the second tiresomely heavy-handed. Lots more to go.

  8. Another excellent book, though not a novel, is Bernard Lewis’s Naples, 1944.

  9. That’s next on my list!

  10. And after that (if anyone’s keeping score) is Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin.

  11. Perhaps I should seek it out. I ran across the paperback several times, many years ago, but it didn’t tweak my curiousity.

  12. Dammit, Hat, I’m a linguist, not a literary critic…despite this, however, I do have an opinion to offer to offer on Curzio Malaparte’s “The Skin”, which I recently read (in a French translation which seemed quite competently done, inasmuch as I never sensed that I was reading a translation): A very well-written story, certainly worth reading, but very bleak and disturbing at many levels. I also read his earlier novel “Kaputt”, years ago, which for some reason I found just as bleak but less disturbing (although its final chapter does foreshadow “The Skin” very well). Do let us know what you think of it!

  13. Will do! (If bleak and disturbing bothered me, I wouldn’t be spending much of my free time reading Russian literature, now would I?)

  14. LH: yes, I should try to overcome my aversion and read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. My aversion became (perhaps too) strong as Goldstein became a celebrity translator – reading her versions was akin, at one remove, to slogging through the latest Novel That Everyone’s Talking About and wondering what all the fuss is over.

  15. The Skin
    I read that over thwenty years ago. The only two things I remember is the dance scene with the Italian ambassador (?) in Berlin – won’t spoil the twist for you – and a general feeling that Malaparte is very much in love with himself. And yes, a lot of bleakness, although I seem to have successfully suppressed any specific memories.

  16. I, for one, can easily account for my cool reception for these Neapolitan novels.

  17. Can’t speak to Burns, but I would absolutely second Lewis’ Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy.

    I am still puzzled by the success that Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have had not just in Italy, but outside of it as well.

    My own take is that every year there has to be a publishing event. David Foster Wallace one year, Donna Tartt another, Patrick O’Brien another. Part of it is manufactured, part just a happy, or unhappy, coincidence.

    Hardcore novel addicts are few, fewer than those who read a small handful of books a year. These book (or so) a year readers (and their Christmas list), is the target audience, the ones looking for a respectable band wagon. Once the band wagon gets rolling, well, that’s all she wrote. Wait again for next year.

    Or something like that.

  18. So it’s all just manufacture and coincidence? You don’t attribute anything to actual quality?

  19. Well, yes, you have to have quality of some sort, just as you have to have some truth in advertising.

    More Sayers, from Gaudy Night (1935):

    The room in which [the literary cocktail party] was held was exceedingly hot and crowded, and all the assembled authors were discussing (a) publishers, (b) agents, (c) their own sales, (d) other people’s sales, and (e) the extraordinary behavior of the Book of the Moment selectors in awarding their ephemeral crown to Tasker Hepplewater’s Mock Turtle ‘I finished this book,’ one distinguished adjudicator had said, ‘with tears running down my face.’ The author of Serpent’s Fang confided to Harriet over a petite saucisse and a glass of sherry that they must have been tears of pure boredom; but the author of Dust and Shiver said, No — they were probably tears of merriment, called forth by the unintentional humour of the book; had she ever met Hepplewater? A very angry young woman, whose book had been passed over, declared that the whole thing was a notorious farce. The Book of the Moment was selected from each publisher’s list in turn, so that her own Ariadne Adams was automatically excluded from benefit, owing to the mere fact that her publisher’s imprint had been honored in the previous January. She had, however, received private assurance that the critic of the Morning Star had sobbed like a child over the last hundred pages of Ariadne, and would probably make it his Book of the Fortnight, if only the publisher could be persuaded to take advertising space in the paper. The author of The Squeezed Lemon agreed that advertising was at the bottom of ited Lemon agreed that advertising was at the bottom of it: had they heard how the Daily Flashlight had tried to blackmail Henry Quint into advertising with them? And how, on his refusal, they had said darkly, ‘Well, you know what will happen, Mr. Quint?’ And how no single Quint book had received so much as a review from the Flashlight ever since? And how Quint had advertised that fact in the Morning Star and sent up his net sales 50 per cent in consequence? Well, by some fantastic figure anyhow. But the author of Primrose Dalliance said that with the Book of the Moment crowd, what counted was Personal Pull — surely they remembered that Hepplewater had married Walton Strawberry’s latest wife’s sister. The author of Jocund Day agreed about the Pull, but thought that in this instance it was political, because there was some powerful anti-Fascist propaganda in Mock Turtle and it was well known that you could always get old Sneep Fortescue with a good smack at the Blackshirts.

    “But what’s Mock Turtle about?” inquired Harriet.

    On this point the authors were for the most part vague; but a young man who wrote humorous magazine stories, and could therefore afford to be wide-minded about novels, said he had read it and thought it rather interesting, only a bit long. It was about a swimming instructor at a watering-place, who had contracted such an unfortunate anti-nudity complex through watching so many bathing-beauties that it completely inhibited all his natural emotions. So he got a job on a whaler and fell in love at first sight with an Eskimo, because she was such a beautiful bundle of garments. So he married her and brought her back to live in a suburb, where she fell in love with a vegetarian nudist. So then the husband went slightly mad and contracted a complex about giant turtles, and spent all his spare time staring into the turtle-tank at the Aquarium, and watching the strange, slow monsters swimming significantly round in their encasing shells. But of course a lot of things came into it — it was one of those books that reflect the author’s reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it.

    Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of [her currently-being-writtten mystery]. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.

  20. “My own take is that every year there has to be a publishing event. David Foster Wallace one year, Donna Tartt another, Patrick O’Brien another. Part of it is manufactured, part just a happy, or unhappy, coincidence.”

    With a similar New York-insular phenomena of “celebrity” translators raised on Rosetta Stone but completely unable to follow a conversation between Rosetta and her neighbor.

    “Gaudy Night” indeed!

  21. Part of it is manufactured, part just a happy, or unhappy, coincidence.

    I think of it as randomness rather than coincidence. There’s simply no correlation, positive or negative, between publicity and quality. If there was a negative correlation that at least would be helpful.

  22. So Shakespeare is no better than a random playwright of the day, he just got a better roll of the dice? I simply don’t understand that point of view.

  23. No, I mean the randomness is in the interface between publicity/modish noise and substantive quality. This Month’s Hot Literary Sensation might be fourth-rate or first-rate – the only way to find out is, having sought reviews and recommendations from sources that one hopes aren’t overly influenced by the publicity/modish noise, to actually read the damn thing. And given other demands, one might never get round to doing so, which is mildly frustrating.

  24. Ah, I see what you mean. Yes, it’s always hard sorting wheat from chaff, and reviews certainly can’t be trusted (as I have more than once complained, e.g. here).

  25. I have had a general policy to ignore ‘best sellers’ and pick them up years later when they catch my eye. It’s part of ignoring advertising.

  26. per incuriam says

    the only way to find out is, having sought reviews and recommendations from sources that one hopes aren’t overly influenced by the publicity/modish noise, to actually read the damn thing

    Yes, it was after reading the positive comment here that I decided to give the Neapolitan novels a go (and so far so good).

    I agree about the translator. Ferrante’s Italian seems fairly straightforward to translate, unlike e.g. Umberto Eco whose translator, William Weaver, was also much acclaimed – but Weaver at least had to find creative solutions to Eco’s many clever conundrums.

    Seeing that Ferrante’s translator was also being touted as something special I was curious to know what she came up with for the (very occasional) passages in L’Amica Geniale which seemed to demand some ingenuity. I was disappointed.

    Ex pluribus: the early part of the book is dominated by Don Achille and his “black bag”. The children are terrified of this black bag, though it never actually appears in the story, existing as it does only in their imagination, the result of a misunderstanding of overheard conversations about Don Achille and his wartime black-marketeering (the Italian word for bag can also mean market). But it seems the translator made no attempt to convey this double-meaning, leaving her readers at something of a loss.

    So no doubt it was for sound commercial reasons that the translator was elevated to celebrity status (the author being of course unavailable for publicity work).

  27. Yes, that makes sense.

  28. As Gore Vidal put it, to have a best-seller it is not sufficient for the book to be bad.

  29. Elizabeth J. Yoder says

    As a professional translator and fluent speaker of Italian, I have to disagree with the glowing praise for Ann Goldstein’s English translations of Elena Ferrante. I find them sloppy, lazy, and slavishly literal–like machine translation with paltry post-editing. In my work, I strive to make my English translations sound as if they were written in native English. I believe most professional translators do the same. I wish she didn’t have a monopoly on English translations of Ferrante’s spectacular work. As I read the original Italian and Goldstein’s translations side by side, I find myself constantly editing the English in my mind. It’s a testament to the brilliance of the originals that they are still loved by those who read them in the stilted English of Goldstein.

  30. Thanks for that well-informed and convincing comment. (I presume when you talk about “the glowing praise for Ann Goldstein’s English translations” you’re referring to published reviews, not this thread; the first comment here says “I found my dislike of Goldstein’s translationese rising to the point that I’ve not been tempted to start the Neapolitan novels,” and I immediately agreed.)

  31. Elizabeth J. Yoder says

    Thank you, Languagehat. That is correct. I am referring to the reviews of her translations that are generally available and also printed in the English versions of the books. After steaming for months about this, I am so glad to have found this forum and the opportunity to speak my mind.

    I worked for 21 years at the Organization of American States in Washington. We were held to a high professional standard, but there was also great pressure to churn out our work and not edit so much. This was a constant thorn in my side. So witnessing the adulation given to sloppy translation pushes my buttons!

  32. I know exactly what you mean. The more I read in foreign languages, the less respect I have for the reviewers who seem to automatically praise the translators of anything they happen to like!

  33. Elizabeth J. Yoder says

    Yes, languagehat. Unless the reviewers are translators themselves, or at least fluent in both languages, they are not qualified, in my opinion, to rate the translations. I suspect that those who chose Ann Goldstein suffer from the same deficiency. She was probably able to churn out the translations at a speed that a careful professional could not match. Fellow professional translators, you certainly know what I mean! In a professional translation environment, a prospective hire must be thoroughly vetted by a seasoned translator; that was part of my job.


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