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Language — or rather text — played a key role in the recent high-profile departure of the president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay. The simple story is that Gay was found to have plagiarised other scholars’ work on multiple… Read More
I have recently been immersed in the Neapolitan Novels, a series of four books written in Italian under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. Sadly Italian is not a language I speak, so I have been dependent on the translations by Ann Goldstein. In fact, it was really my interest in Goldstein as a translator that led me to the books in the first place. I stumbled across an article about Goldstein in the Guardian, which described how she came to work as a literary translator relatively late in life alongside her job as an editor at the New Yorker. I was intrigued by the relatively high profile enjoyed by Goldstein (as the translator) compared with the dearth of information about the author, who writes under the nom de plume Ferrante*. As so often happens in life, the very next day after reading the article I was in a charity shop and there was a copy of My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four novels.
Ferrante is quoted as saying she considers the four books to be a single work, published serially purely for practical reasons. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine what someone would make of book two without the background from the first in the series. The novels are a rich and hugely detailed depiction of Neapolitan life in the post-war period, chronicling the social upheaval and change which occurred at this time and right up to the present day. The narrative is centred around the friendship between two women as they move from childhood to adulthood.
When reading about Goldstein, I was particularly fascinated by her confession that, although her Italian is clearly excellent, she has never lived in the country and so doesn’t claim “verbal fluency”. She learned Italian at a relatively late stage in life when her employer The New Yorker offered to pay for staff to learn a language purely for educational purposes. Goldstein was then in her thirties and already had a good grasp of French and Latin so found Italian came relatively easily to her. She is quick to acknowledge that her linguistic skills have not been gained in the usual manner, saying “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!”
A key feature in the novels involves the shifts between formal Italian and local Neapolitan dialect. In the English version you often find explanatory phrases such as “she answered in dialect” or “he switched to speaking in dialect”. I wondered if this was the translator’s mechanism to capture phrases which were actually written in dialect in the original. But Goldstein reveals that this is not the case at all, indeed she suggests that Italians themselves would struggle to understand the local language.
Another interesting aspect of the translations is that they were written as the books flew off the press, so Goldstein had not read the entire series when she worked on the earlier novels. She describes her frustration at coming across a particularly obscure Italian word in the first novel, which does not then recur until the fourth book, where its meaning becomes much clearer. The interview is referenced below and is a wonderful read for anyone interested in the nitty gritty of literary translation.
* An Italian journalist claimed to have uncovered Ferrante’s identity in late 2016, causing outrage amongst Ferrante loyalists who claim her (or his) right to anonymity should have been respected.
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