Ann Goldstein translates Elena Ferrante’s books from Italian into English, but she has never read the author’s acclaimed Neapolitan novels all the way through. Turnaround time was so tight while she was translating that she had to think of them piecemeal, as individual sentences and phrases to straighten out and unwind.
Goldstein’s first drafts are literal renderings of the author’s words. Then she begins working through synonyms and thinking about syntax, trying to arrange the English so the experience of reading it comes as close as possible as it could be to the Italian. It’s not easy, especially since “the structure of a sentence can be a lot freer” in Italian than in English, she says. Translating can be like lining up unruly toddlers who have their own sense of order. Still, she tries to render it as near to Ferrante’s words as she can. “I tend to stay closer to the text than many of my colleagues,” Goldestein says. (One funny example from the book: Ferrante writes that when her protagonist unzips a boy’s pants, a “toilet smell” comes out. It’s a literal Italian translation from “latrina.”) Ferrante, Goldstein reminds me, has written at length “about how she doesn’t want to have beautiful writing, she wants to tell the truth.”
The author’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, tells the story of Giovanna, a teenager whose parents’ marriage crumbles when she begins spending time with her Aunt Vittoria — a wildly passionate woman, estranged from Giovanna’s father after long-ago quarrels, and intent on carving Giovanna in her image. Here, Goldstein explains some of the sentences that gave her particular trouble.
Italian: “Com’è che è così arcigna Giovanna, stasera?”
English: “Why is Giovanna so grim tonight?”
Finding the exact right adjective was crucial here, Goldstein says. It’s a moment where Giovanna sits with her parents, who hound her about her bad attitude. “The thing was,” she says, “the conversation is about the word, and it had to be a word that was not too common, because she’s 12. It has to be a word that she might know, or might not know.” First Goldstein used surly, then stern, then dour. She searched for a word that Giovanna would be annoyed about her parents using against her, even though it’s true — she does have a bad attitude. Surly might have worked better, Goldstein admits. “This is the problem with translation, you look at these things and you think, ‘Oh, wow, I could’ve done better here.’”
Italian: “Mia zia allora si rivolse di scatto a quest’ultimo e gli disse che gli avrebbe tagliato il pesce – usò proprio quel vocabolo, in dialetto, con voce tranquilla, brandendo le forbici – se continuava a ridere.”
English: “My aunt turned to him abruptly and said she would cut off his pesce—she used precisely that dialect word, pesce, fish, in a calm voice, brandishing the scissors—if he kept laughing.”
Ferrante’s novels are filled with Neapolitan dialect; they delineate who is upper crust and who shares a bedroom with all four of their siblings. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena’s continued education improves her traditional Italian to the point that it marks her as different from her friends. For The Lying Life of Adults, the distinction is again important: Giovanna grows up with professors for parents and dialect is as foreign to her as the streets of the working-class neighborhoods down the hill from her well-perched apartment.
Here, when fiery Vittoria threatens to chop off a man’s penis, Goldstein wondered to herself, “[Should I] just use a slang word in English?” I ask her which ones she considered. “Oh, well, I had pecker, dick. I had some other ones, too, I can’t remember. I probably don’t have that good a vocabulary in these things,” she laughs. But she decided to stick with exactly that word, pesce, and all its slimy connotations. It’s a far less, ahem, staid term than sesso, which translates as genitals, which Goldstein reminds me is “what Ferrante uses through the whole Neapolitan novels, practically.”
Italian: “Quanto ci teneva al cuore, nei suoi gesti coincideva con le sue grosse mammelle, che si batteva con una mano larga, dita nodose.”
English: “How important to her the heart was, coinciding with her large breasts, which she hit, gesturing with her broad hand and gnarled fingers.”
The complicated syntax of this sentence — its waves of phrases — made this one particularly difficult for Goldstein, who wanted to convey how crucial Aunt Vittoria’s large breasts are to Giovanna’s sense of self. On the novel’s first page, Giovanna overhears her father say she’s “getting Vittoria’s face” — an insult, she believes, since Vittoria isn’t a beautiful woman. And as she grows up, her body grows more and more like Vittoria’s, including big boobs that she alternately hides and flaunts, unsure what to do with them. “The previous sentence ends with the word ‘warmhearted,’ di gran cuore,” and it was important, Goldstein says, to carry the meaning between the two sentences, to connect her physicality and her warmth. At the same time that Vittoria is banging against her chest, she’s ripping Giovanna’s father to shreds, telling her that he’s “deprived her of the affection of people without education.” The gnarled fingers, the breasts, the heart, they all pile up, a manifestation of Vittoria’s distorted vibrance and passion.