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Anne Goldstein: “Translation is all about attention to detail”

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Anne Goldstein: “Translation is all about attention to detail”

Anne Goldstein knows Elena Ferrante’s work intimately—perhaps more than anyone else in the English-speaking world—but has no great desire to meet her. Goldstein is the literary translator who introduced the Italian author’s novels, most famously the Neapolitan Quartet, to English-speaking audiences. In English, as well as in the original Italian, they became bestsellers. Ferrante is beloved for her truthful depictions of teenage friendship and woman’s pain. But “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym: the identity of the author is not known to the public, despite numerous attempts to reveal it.

Goldstein communicated with Ferrante through her Italian publisher. “I don’t really mind not talking to her directly,” she said via Zoom from her book-laden apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. “The person who writes the books is the person I know, whoever that person is, the mind that writes the books is someone I have a dialogue with.” She giggled, as she often did, even though she was about to say something , which she must have insisted on many times before. “And – by the way – I don’t know who she is. And it’s not me.”

Goldstein was born in 1949 and grew up in New Jersey. She has been translating Italian literature into English since the early 1990s and spent most of her career in the copy department of A New Yorker, which she joined in 1974. In the late 1980s, she became head of the department, overseeing copy and proofreading. She had studied ancient Greek at university and could read French “fairly well”, but she was s A New Yorker colleagues that she learned Italian first. Over three consecutive years, the group read the trio of books featuring Dante Divine comedy. Goldstein was in his late thirties at the time; it is more difficult to learn a language later in life. “You’re not going to get the same ease, the same kind of fluidity as if you were a kid,” she said, “but you can do something.”

She retired from the magazine in 2017 and has been translating ever since. It still obeys the many grammar rules that have been instilled in it for four decades A New Yorker (“things like the serial comma or the Oxford comma – no one uses it anymore, which is ridiculous because it’s so clear”). The two halves of her career are distinct but overlapping. “I really think proofreading, copy editing, editing is all about attention to detail, and of course translation is all about attention to detail. It is attention to specific words, to sentences, and to how the words work in a sentence. It’s about doing everything as right as possible, or what you think is right, from the way the word is spelled—and we may have a difference of opinion about that,” that amused her, “to the way used.”

Goldstein spoke consciously of his own language (“spoken” could, of course, be “written”) and regularly corrected himself, as if always in search of the most accurate way to convey his meaning. She wore a gray V-neck sweater, dangling silver earrings, and thick-rimmed glasses—over which her eyebrows often appeared, bouncing with excitement as she furrowed her brow in concentration and then quickly relaxed.

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Her latest translation is on Forbidden notebook by Alba de Cespedes. First published in Italy in the 1950s, the novel features a series of diaries by Valeria Cosati, who secretly writes about her deep dissatisfaction with her life in post-war Rome. “I was struck by the fact that it looks – it’s a bit of a cliché to say this – but it looks so contemporary. She seems to be dealing with the same issues that women have now or have since. That was 70 years ago. The daily struggles are different, but the psychological struggles are so similar.”

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The book is also being republished in Italy, where it has been out of print for decades. It marks a “rediscovery,” a reassertion of a female author who succeeded in her lifetime but whom patriarchal cultural memory has forgotten. It was at Ferrante’s crushera collection of letters, essays, and interviews translated by Goldstein into English that she first learned about de Céspedes, whose life was remarkable by any standard—and of particular interest to the translator, who is fascinated by wartime and postwar Italy.

De Céspedes is the granddaughter of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who led Cuba’s uprising for independence from Spain and later served as its first president. She was born in Rome, married when she was 15 and had a child at 17. In 1943, she and her second husband fled to escape the Nazi occupation of the capital. “So they spent a month hiding in the woods in Abruzzo!” Goldstein explained with wide eyes. “She wrote a diary – there’s a little diary that I’ve translated that I’m trying to publish. It’s incredible. I don’t know how she wrote it, but she did, it was just in the woods and they were slowly getting more and more surrounded by the Germans. It’s quite dramatic. She had a wild life!’

Goldstein’s enthusiasm for her authors—and for her involvement in the project of “rediscovering” an author like de Cespedes—is evident. The thematic similarity between Forbidden notebook and many of Ferrante’s works are, she said, a coincidence. “But I like novels about women—I guess. Although not exclusively. I’ve done a lot more [books by] women, especially female first-person narrators. There’s something about it that’s particularly pleasing.” She stopped. “But I’m always interested in everything!”

However, she could not explain exactly what she was looking for in the literature she could translate. She prefers books set in Italy, but other than that – “I’m not really looking for anything. Most books, even if they don’t seem interesting on the surface, end up being interesting for one reason or another, either because of translation problems or because of language problems.

She doesn’t see herself as a writer as such—“I mean, I don’t write anything of my own”—and instead joins critic Cesare Garboli, who writes, “To translate is to be an actor.” “The actor acts,” Goldstein said. . “It’s just one time, it’s his personal performance, and no one else can do the same.” Translation is also, she said, “a puzzle. You solve puzzles all the time. But to resolve them, you must interpret. And of course, there is never just one answer.

For a long time, critics of the publishing industry spoke of the “3 percent problem”—that only 3 percent of books sold in English are in translation. (Statistics are cited for both the UK and the US.) In the 30 years that Goldstein has been translating, she has seen that number rise. “There’s definitely more openness to translations,” she said, citing the proliferation of small presses, including New Directions and Archipelago Books in the US, as leading the way. The “Ferrante phenomenon” – as she described it – has helped translators gain the respect they deserve. “Because there is no author, it made people more aware of the fact that there was a translator involved in the book.”

Goldstein has a personal fascination with Italian culture, but also sees a moral aspiration in reading in translation. “It opens you up to other cultures. We’re all very — well, especially in America — we’re so inward-looking, we’re so solipsistic,” she paused with a laugh. “Or what’s the word! I mean, it’s one word. People don’t pay attention to other cultures. They don’t pay attention and don’t want to learn anything. They don’t want to understand how other people can think, how their neighbors can think. It’s just that the more you know, the better. The wider your sense of the world, it can’t help but make you a better person.

The Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Cespedes and translated by Ann Goldstein is published by Pushkin Press

Read more:

Fate and Freedom in Elena Ferrante

Yiyun Li’s The Book of Goose: In the Shadow of Elena Ferrante

‘Real cinema trusts images’: Elena Ferrante on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter

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