Translators rarely get to share much of the author’s spotlight. But Elena Ferrante, the Italian author of the critically acclaimed Neapolitan Novels, has created a special situation: she refuses to make her identity public, and her works are booming in the U.S., surely thanks in part to her English-language translator Ann Goldstein.
Goldstein, the head of the copy department at The New Yorker by day, doesn’t know the true identity of the writer known as Elena Ferrante, whose book The Story of the Lost Child was just released in English. But Goldstein doesn’t necessarily need to interact with an author, only the text. Case in point: The Complete Works of Primo Levi, which W.W. Norton’s Liveright imprint will soon publish and for which she translated three books. Goldstein spoke with TIME about her work, and the responsibility of being a translator.
TIME: What drew you to the Levi project?
Goldstein: Like most of my projects, it happened by accident. Or, not by accident, but Bob Weil, the editor-in-chief of Liveright, got this idea that he wanted to do the complete works of Primo Levi, which is a very complex project. So he started gathering English rights, which were held in a multitude of places. He spent about five years doing that. Then he needed an editor. He got to me through Henry Finder at The New Yorker. We met and hit it off, and he said, “Let’s do it.” So I said, “Okay, let’s do it.” His original idea was to collect the existing translations into one big set. But then when I started looking at them, I realized two things: One, that some of the translations were somewhat outdated; and two, in English, a lot of his works hadn’t been published in the right way—he wrote a lot of short stories and essays, people had looked at the books as they were published in Italian and took maybe two thirds of them, and then one from here, and one from column C. So it seemed like if we were going to do the complete works, we had to [translate] the complete works.
What do you think is his most essential volume and what is your personal favorite?
I think in some ways The Periodic Table is my favorite, and it’s not original to say this, but in a way it’s the most—I hesitate to say representative, because that makes it sound less amazing, less dense, less wonderful, less rich—but it is, because it has all of the things that he’s known for. It’s autobiographical, it has history in it, it’s got these imaginative science fiction, it’s got the war and his experience at Auschwitz, so it’s really got a little of everything—and it’s beautifully written.
How is translating Primo Levi different from translating Elena Ferrante?
Well, it’s a big responsibility. Because there’s so much attention paid to him, and because of the Auschwitz thing and the question of Levi as a witness as well as a writer, there is a lot of pressure and responsibility. Also, because it had been translated before, you sort of had to say to yourself, There’s a reason that I’m doing this. And I didn’t know Ferrante was going to get that much attention! Compared to Ferrate, Levi is a very different kind of writer. The sentences are more organized—her sentences tend to follow her emotions. His sentences, I wouldn’t say they’re not emotional, but the emotions aren’t coming at you. There’s something sort of balanced about his sentences that is not the case with her writing.
What is the hardest part of translating Ferrante?
That is the hardest thing about Ferrante. To contain the emotion and keep, if not the actual sentence structure, but the flow in Italian. It’s really hard, because in Italian—this is also true of Levi, he loves to use pairs of words, pairs of adjectives, pairs of adverbs, and sometimes in English it begins to sound heavy-handed, even though in Italian it doesn’t. Italian has genders, so their sentence structures are in a sense more flexible, because you don’t have to have the adjective right next to the noun, you can have it before or after. In English, you can’t move things around or be quite as flexible with the structure, or you might have to make a new sentence. Ferrante does write some run-on sentences, and sometimes we follow that in English, sometimes not. But in Italian, it’s not really like a run-on sentence.
Is there anything in the vocabulary that doesn’t have the same feeling in English?
Italian has a lot of diminutives and increasers—like the word in the Ferrante, stradone, is a big street, strada, and I decided to keep it in the end, because there was no good equivalent. Somebody said once, “What’s wrong with ‘Broadway’?” I don’t think so! Italian also has the superlatives, all those –issimo words, and you’re not going to say, “It was a very big, very dark, very large, very sinister house.” You can’t do it, whereas in Italian, it kind of works.
How did you get involved in translating Ferrante?
The owners of the Italian publishing company, Edizioni E/O, decided that they wanted to start publishing books in America. They had tried to sell Ferrante, and she was rejected by many publishers. So for many reasons, E/O wanted to expand into America, and the first book that they wanted to publish was The Days of Abandonment. So they asked four or five translators—I think they just got my name off the PEN website—for samples. And I won.
Have the publishers kept her identity secret from you?
Yes. In the beginning, if I had a question or something, I wrote to them and they wrote to her. In the last few years, she’s done a lot more interviews, so she actually has an email address. I think that if I wanted to, I could write to her email address. But because it started that way, I kept it that way.
Have you received feedback from her?
Not really. At some point she said “thank you.” But not specific feedback, she doesn’t comment on the translations.
What has surprised you the most about the media coverage of Ferrante?
Of course it’s surprising for a translated book to get a lot of attention. I guess [Karl Ove] Knausgård started that. I think one of the things that makes people so excited about the Ferrantes is that people want to talk about them. I think that’s kind of a great thing. It must be one of the reasons that they’re so popular.
What are the most important principles of translation?
I tend to be kind of literal about translation. I think it’s important to present the writer as closely as possible. I [also] think it should read like English, so it’s always a balancing act between the two things. I think it’s important to be accurate on the level of the word, but it’s also important to be accurate at the level of the sentence, at the level of the paragraph. Sometimes you lose sight of that—I remind myself to go back and read. I might have this perfect sentence, but then I go back and read the paragraph and say, “Wait a minute, I’ve missed the meaning here.” As the writer, you can choose the word that seems best in terms of meaning, nuance, sound, etc. As the translator you are unlikely to find a word in your language that exactly matches, so that you are always making a decision about which meaning or nuance to choose, or emphasize, over the others.
What are you reading now?
I tend to read books in Italian. Right now I’m rereading My Brilliant Friend. I read a book by a writer called Agota Kristof, The Illiterate. She’s Hungarian but she writes in French. It’s about language, basically.
Who would you most like to translate next?
I’m working on a Pier Paolo Pasolini novel, Ragazzi di Vita; in English, we’re calling it The Street Kids.
This interview has been edited and condensed.