The Current

Ann Goldstein on the art of translating for mysterious Elena Ferrante

Bestselling Italian author Elena Ferrante's work is adored by millions around the world. The Current speaks to Ann Goldstein, the woman tasked with translating the words into English and tells us why the mysterious storyteller revels in her anonymity.
Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey by Italian Elena Ferrante. Ann Goldstein, who translated the book, says it's not meant to be an autobiography but a collection of letters that provides a window into the writer's process. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada)

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Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels have become worldwide classics but despite their cult following, Ferrante has wanted no part of the limelight and insists on remaining anonymous.

Her true identity has mattered little to her readers who say they have become addicted to her tales of the rich, decades-long friendship of Lenú and Lila that begins in 1950s Naples.

Ferrante's most recent work Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey is a collection of letters by, and interviews with, the reclusive writer providing a window into her thoughts, on her characters, and her writing process.

"It is not meant to be an autobiography," says New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, the translator of all of Ferrante's books.

Goldstein is often the public face of the Neapolitan series, although she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that she has never met Ferrante.

"As far as I know, the only people who know who she is are her publishers."

When there are questions, Goldstein says she goes through the publishers who gets in touch with Ferrante as a third party. 

"I've translated a lot of dead authors so it's not that unusual for me."

She tells Tremonti Ferrante's mysterious anonymity is not a tactic to sell books but rather to avoid being "a part of the commercial world, the literary marketplace."

"She told the publishers that right from the start and … she said I'm not going to do anything for my books."

When Ferrante's first books came out in Italy there was huge speculation about who she was — a woman, a man, a group?

But Goldstein tells Tremonti she feels certain from the first books she's translated, right up to the Neapolitan Quartet that Ferrante is a she.

And for the record, Goldstein confirms with Tremonti, "I'm not Elena Ferrante."

"Translators usually are the silent partner in most books," she says on being so publicly known for her translation.

"I think people should recognize that translated books have translators — they didn't get there magically."

"But at the same time I feel you know I'm not Elena Ferrante and … I shouldn't be confused with her in any way."

Listen to the full segment.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.