Ann Goldstein’s dog is not happy about having a visitor. As Goldstein opens the door to her Greenwich Village apartment, an elderly corgi appears by her side, barking furiously. Before we can discuss 69-year-old Goldstein’s distinguished career as a translator of Italian literature, Tomaso must be placated with a few tosses of his favorite toy, after which he keeps a suspicious eye on me as we stand in her kitchen while she makes espresso. Watching Goldstein gently soothe her anxious pet makes it easy to understand why she found it distressing to translate the passage in Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment describing the death of the narrator’s dog.
Goldstein also translated Ferrante’s subsequent Neapolitan Novels quartet, whose success led indirectly to Goldstein’s latest project. “Coming off ‘Ferrante fever,’ it seemed like this was a good time for translating Italian women writers, and Morante is a great writer who is not well known here,” she says, finally seated in her book-lined living room with Tomaso panting quietly at her feet.
Elsa Morante (1912–1985) was a prominent figure in postwar Italian literary circles. In 1957, she won the prestigious Strega Prize for Arturo’s Island, which Liveright will publish in Goldstein’s new translation in February. Set on the island of Procida, off the coast of Naples, the novel chronicles the painful coming-of-age of a 14-year-old boy who slowly discovers that his adored father has shameful secrets, while the young stepmother he once despised shows unexpected strength and resolve.
“It was Bob Weil’s idea,” Goldstein says. “We had such a good time working together for 11 years on the collected works of Primo Levi that we said, ‘Let’s find something else.’ He looked into the Morante situation, and this was the one that was available. Actually, Jenny McPhee is doing her other big early novel, Menzogna e sortilegio [Lies and Sorcery, Morante’s debut], for New York Review Books, so we’re having a little Morante moment. What struck me most about Arturo’s Island was, here’s this woman, in her second novel, writing in the voice of a 14-year-old boy about a place she doesn’t really know; she’d stayed on Procida for a while, but it wasn’t her native place the way Rome was. I found the book astonishing and difficult; I didn’t realize that until I started translating, which happens all the time. In this case, Morante’s sentences are very complicated and full of words—there are so many words! Arturo describes his emotions, physical reactions, and the physical manifestation of emotions in so much detail. In Italian, that’s fine, you can be a little bit dramatic, but in English, to get all those details in without sounding melodramatic, to make it sound good and reasonable—I found that hard.”
When I ask Goldstein whether she discussed her difficulties with Weil, she shakes her head. “I didn’t talk to anybody; I just grappled with the words. I’m always mostly worried about the words. To me, fidelity is the most important thing, but fidelity does not necessarily mean literal. Primo Levi, who translated Kafka from German, says, I think in his introduction to The Trial, that he tries to steer a middle course between word-for-word literalness and something that really has nothing to do with the text. He goes on to say that what a translator has to have to find that middle ground is something called ‘linguistic sensibility.’ I think what he means is a feeling for the original text that is conveyed in some way that is not exactly literal, but it is the text—it’s not taking off from the text.”
Goldstein, who retired in 2017 after more than four decades in the New Yorker’s copy department, fell into her parallel career as a translator more or less by accident. Beginning in 1987, she studied Italian with other New Yorker staffers in an after-hours class; they read Dante for two years, and the class eventually morphed into a conversation group with their teacher. In 1992, when a short story by Aldo Buzzi, “Chekhov in Sondrio,” was submitted to the magazine in Italian, then-editor Bob Gottlieb asked Goldstein to read it, and she decided on the spur of the moment to translate it. The New Yorker published the story, and Goldstein went on to receive PEN’s Renato Poggioli Prize for her rendering of Buzzi’s collection, Journey to the Land of the Flies.
“I was totally surprised to find it as a second career, but I was glad about it,” Goldstein says. “Translators and copy editors share certain qualities: attention to words, attention to language, attention to the style of the writer—even though people always say everyone in the New Yorker writes the same, they actually don’t.”
Goldstein worked under four editors: William Shawn, Tina Brown, Gottlieb, and David Remnick. “The New Yorker was a very eccentric place when I started in the ’70s, but it became less eccentric. Now, it’s different—more like other magazines. David had to make it survive, and he did that very well. But it’s kind of too bad that it had to lose something in order to survive.”
Asked if she ever thought about giving up her day job, Goldstein replies, “How could I? You can’t afford to live on translations. Almost all translators have other jobs. PEN did a study last year; they surveyed all the member translators to get a sense of what people were paying and whether they paid royalties. It wasn’t very inspiring. A lot of publishers won’t give royalties at all—not that you expect that you’re ever going to get anything, but you want the acknowledgment. Many of the publishers that do translations are small and don’t have any money. I always said my New Yorker job supported my translating habit.”
Goldstein did get royalties in her contracts with Europa, Ferrante’s publisher. “I had them only as a matter of principle,” she says. She doesn’t go into detail, but presumably the Neapolitan Novels’ bestselling success eased her move into retirement—from copyediting. She’s busier than ever as a translator, she says ruefully.
“Things happen,” Goldstein adds. “Like Ferrante’s columns in the Guardian and her screenplays for the television series; I translated all of those. There’s been a lot of stuff like that. You don’t expect it, but you don’t want to say no. I’m currently translating a very strange book called The Fragile Landscape, about these lost villages in Italy. It probably won’t have a publisher until I finish the translation and show it to people, but I thought it sounded so interesting. Then I’m translating this book called Ten Lessons on the Classics, which is fun because it’s like being able to read The Odyssey, The Iliad, Virgil, Ovid all over again. Then I’m going to be starting on the book that won the Strega prize this year, Girl with a Leica, about a young woman photographer who was killed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It’s way too much! I am always getting myself into these situations of having too much to do. If somebody has an idea and it looks interesting, I’m in.”