Millions of readers in thrall to Elena Ferrante, the secretive and wildly popular Italian novelist, must accept certain conditions.
They won’t be meeting her, virtually or in-person, at any sort of book signing or literary festival. Her stories will be rooted in Italy, and often focus on women trying to tame the chaos of their lives through writing.
And if they are reading Ferrante’s books in English, they are absorbing, whether they realize it or not, the nimble translation work of Ann Goldstein.
Goldstein has never met Ferrante and communicates with her through her publisher, but she has become one of the best known and most celebrated literary translators in the world as a result of her work on “My Brilliant Friend” and the rest of the author’s Neapolitan quartet. In many ways, their relationship is reciprocal: While Italian readers have known Ferrante for years, it was the translation of her books into English and other languages that catapulted her to international fame.
Their collaboration will come into view again next month when Ferrante’s latest novel, “The Lying Life of Adults,” is released across the world on Sept. 1. It was previously slated for June 1, but the publishers delayed it because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Netflix is planning to adapt the novel into an original series.)
Like several of Ferrante’s other books, “The Lying Life of Adults” is set in Naples. It follows the unraveling of an adolescent, Giovanna, after she overhears her father say that she is becoming ugly like her fearsome aunt, Vittoria. Giovanna’s quest to meet her aunt leads her through a grittier part of the city, revealing unsavory family truths along the way.
“It was a surprising book,” Goldstein said in a Zoom interview from her downtown Manhattan home. “It was such a different view of Naples, from such a different point of view both in terms of class and social life, and of having a teenage narrator.”
She added: “I just hope that I got it right.”
That humility was a hallmark of her approach as the head of The New Yorker’s copy desk. Goldstein worked at the magazine for over 40 years, steadfastly defending its diereses, “which” and “that” rules and other grammatical diktats that “writers get cranky about,” she said.
But the most essential part of the job was to make a writer sound as much like him or herself as possible, she said. “The writers I edited were the great writers. I was really lucky.”
After Janet Malcolm’s husband and editor, Gardner Botsford, died in 2004, Goldstein took over as her editor. “I could not have wished for a better successor,” Malcolm wrote in an email. “Ann’s most outstanding trait — apart from her beautiful work — is her modesty. She is known for her reticence and self-effacement.”
In the mid-1980s, Goldstein and a few New Yorker colleagues formed an evening class to learn Italian. (“Enlightened employers used to pay for classes,” she said.) Goldstein had been enchanted by Dante in college and wanted to read him in his original language. The group spent a year each on “Inferno,” “Purgatory” and “Paradise.”
“Normally people read ‘Inferno’ and that’s all,” but it’s worth seeing it through to ‘Paradise,’” Goldstein said. “You deserve it.”
She began translating a few years later, starting with Aldo Buzzi’s short story “Chekhov in Sondrio,” and moving on to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Petrolio,” “a totally crazy book” with complicated Italian that, according to her, hardly anyone has read in either language. Before retiring from The New Yorker in 2017, Goldstein did all her translations at night or over weekends and vacations.
“I’m willing to try anything,” she said of the work she’s drawn to. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have an affinity for the writer, but with Ferrante, I do.”
Europa Editions, Ferrante’s U.S. publisher, declined to make the author available for an interview. “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym, and while there has been speculation about her identity, she has never revealed herself publicly. Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O, mediates her correspondence with Goldstein.
Their working relationship goes back to 2004, before “My Brilliant Friend,” when Goldstein translated “The Days of Abandonment,” Ferrante’s first book with Europa. Goldstein, one of a handful of people invited to submit a sample translation, got the job over — among others — Europa’s editor in chief, Michael Reynolds.
Goldstein describes herself as a highly literal translator, an approach that serves Ferrante’s idiosyncratic prose well, Reynolds said. “It takes a great deal of humility and a great deal of courage to represent so closely what an author wrote in the original language.”
One of the reasons for Ferrante’s success in English “is the degree to which the reader feels involved and engaged,” he added. “Ann’s style of translation helps that.”
Ferrante is known for her long, emotive sentences, and in Goldstein’s translation of “The Lying Life of Adults,” that comes through even in the first paragraph: “Everything — the spaces of Naples, the blue light of a frigid February, those words — remained fixed. But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion.”
Mary Norris, a former longtime copy editor at The New Yorker, worked with Goldstein for decades. “The virtues of a copy editor served her well as a translator,” Norris said. “She disappears, in a sense. In the way that a copy editor is a sieve for the writer and the language, the same is true of a translator.”
But Norris came to see later that “translating is not just like copy editing,” she said. “It also involves being a writer. Ann gives that part of herself to it.”
While she is most closely associated with Ferrante, Goldstein has translated books by Elsa Morante and Giacomo Leopardi, as well as Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2017 collection of essays, “In Other Words,” which the author wrote in Italian. Goldstein also edited and contributed to the 2015 translation of “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” an enormous project involving translations by several writers, including Jenny McPhee.
“She’d always say, ‘I’m not a writer, I’m not creative,’ but there’s a certain creativity you really need, and she has it even if she doesn’t own it,” McPhee said.
Of the Ferrante novels, McPhee added: “Ann is all over those books … If somebody else had done it, it may have never taken off.”
The relationship between Goldstein and Ferrante resembles the one between Lenù and Lila, the main characters of the Neapolitan quartet. “Those are books about who’s doing the narrating and the dichotomous relationship between two women — who’s out front and who’s behind, who’s left and who’s stayed, who’s the brilliant friend and who isn’t — and I think that has repeated itself in the relationship between author and translator,” Reynolds said.
For Goldstein, who has remained in New York City through the pandemic, it has been a strange time to be promoting a book. She is keeping busy with more translation work and still meeting with her fellow Italian students, after all these years, over Zoom.
“The idea was to read Dante,” she said, “and here we are, reading Dante again.”