Elena Ferrante, with the publication of her first book, Troubling Love in 1992, announced to her publisher that she would do nothing to promote the book – that she would not be present for any sort of publicity or presentation. (‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.’) She has steadfastly kept to that decision, and in 2015, when an interviewer wanted to know ‘Who is Elena Ferrante?’ she could answer: ‘Thirteen letters, no more or less.’
Over the years, however, while remaining absent, she has revealed quite a lot about herself, in interviews and essays – not about her personal life but about her intellectual life. In particular, around the time the ‘Neapolitan Quartet’ began to gain popularity, there was a greater demand for Elena Ferrante as a presence; this led to numerous interviews, which, as in the past, she agreed to do but only in written form. She also then started writing short essays and articles, such as an introduction to an edition of Sense and Sensibility, and a yearlong series of columns in the Guardian on a range of subjects, from exclamation points to jealousy.
My own first encounter with Ferrante – or with her words – took place in 2004, when I was asked to do a sample translation of The Days of Abandonment, her second novel, but first to be published in English. I knew nothing about her, but as soon as I read the first sentence of that book I was gripped. I went on to translate it, and since then I have translated not only her novels – four, plus the four ‘Neapolitan Novels’ – but the collection of interviews and letters entitled Frantumaglia, and many other interviews, essays and articles, most recently the four essays of In the Margins.
The prose in Ferrante’s novels is dense; she can use a lot of words, not in a redundant way but in order to get at the precise truth of, say, an emotion, and she is often describing emotional states. The shorter, nonfiction writing can also be dense, but the sentences are compacted rather than expansive, they compress rather than dig – or excavate, as she puts it. In the novels this can be tricky to preserve within an English syntax and without losing the meaning, the intensity and the momentum created by the pileup of words; in the non-fiction, sentences have to be unpacked; unwound, so to speak. Also, in a novel, even a short novel, there is time and space to get used to a rhythm, and a vocabulary, which is not available in a short non-fiction piece.
As the translator, I am most intimately engaged with the text on the level of words: how the words fit together into the sentence, the sentence into the paragraph. In a novel, I’m involved in the social and emotional lives of the characters, and my work is to make them vivid and colloquial. Translating Ferrante’s non-fiction has allowed me to step back and see the fiction from a broader perspective. In In the Margins Ferrante talks a lot about writers and writings that have influenced her. Translating it – reading it – was literally to see the work that has gone into the fiction, including the lifetime of reading that sustains it. Not that one makes specific connections, but I’ve been able to see common elements, structures, bigger pictures. For example, I hadn’t thought cohesively about the fact that there aren’t a lot of detailed physical descriptions of people or places in Ferrante’s novels until I worked on the essay ‘Aquamarine’, from In the Margins, in which she talks about how she practised descriptions, trying to ‘tell things as they are’, and what, ultimately, she learned from that.
Translating the screenplays for the TV series My Brilliant Friend has provided another angle from which to view Ferrante’s work. In a screenplay the story has to be conveyed within a limited frame; events, both physical and emotional, have to be dramatised, which sometimes means condensing and sometimes expanding. Some scenes could be taken almost directly from the books; at other times two or three scenes in the book could be made into one; sometimes something narrated had to be made active. It’s like another shake of the kaleidoscope, in which you see patterns and colours that were not visible before.
My own, eighteen-year relationship with the thirteen letters of Elena Ferrante has been filtered through the publishers. When I have questions, I ask them, and they will ask Ferrante. In my life as a translator I’ve worked with a lot of dead authors, so I’m used to the author who is present not as a physical person but as the mind or brain or consciousness that has put the words on the page.
By Ann Goldstein
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