The Chicago Humanities Festival recently hosted a conversation among Katherine Hill, Merve Emre, and translator Ann Goldstein, all scholars of elusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. The discussion is available to view.
Hill is a Brooklyn-based author and literary critic. Emre, currently associate professor of English at Oxford University, is perhaps best known for her critique of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. Goldstein heads The New Yorker’s copy department and also works as translator of Italian-language books into English. What unites them is their passion for Ferrante’s work—passion that they’ve built into their respective literary careers.
Goldstein had been translating for over a decade when she was selected to translate Ferrante’s work in 2004, eventually working on the bestselling Neopolitan Quartet that has now been adapted into the HBO series My Brilliant Friend. Goldstein became a “celebrity translator” due to her work on Ferrante’s novels, and has even been called “the face of Ferrante” as the author famously chooses to remain anonymous. Emre and Hill, accomplished critics and writers in their own right, became enamored with Ferrante’s work via Goldstein’s translations, and spent years passing notes and essays back and forth along with their colleagues Sarah Chihaya and Jill Richards. These exchanges were then compiled and published as The Ferrante Letters.
The CHF panel, moderated by The Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen, had the tone of old friends catching up at a cocktail party. Starting with a discussion of Ferrante’s most recent book translated by Goldstein, The Lying Life of Adults, the scholars shared theorized about Ferrante’s appeal. A commenter questioned if Naples had a universal quality to it that allows the Neopolitan Quartet to speak to so many; the panelists responded in the negative, saying rather that the mix of anonymity, specificity, and painful realism of Ferrante’s voice conjures universal notions of coming of age, such as realizing when one’s parents may be wrong about some things, a major theme in The Lying Life of Adults.
Goldstein fielded questions about the translation process, noting that her contact with Ferrante is limited, entirely mediated by her publisher. She discussed the role of the translator as an “impersonator” of the author, trying her best to mimic Ferrante’s “ahistorical” voice.
The panelists also touched on the writing process for The Ferrante Letters and the difficulty of collaborating on such an innovative project. When asked if the tome “changed the world of criticism” they all said no, but it does raise an interesting notion: will the community of literary criticism undergo the structural changes pioneered by the organic, collaborative approach of The Ferrante Letters?
Finally, the panelists shared thoughts on Ferrante’s anonymity, which inspires perhaps as much intrigue and discussion as her body of work. The writers deferred to Johnsen, Chicago’s very own up-and-coming Terry Gross, inquiring about her experience interviewing authors. Emre posed the question, “Have you ever thought less of a person after interviewing them?” and Johnsen answered, “99 percent of the time, no.” Johnsen initially said she was “bummed out” out about Ferrante’s anonymity, and later revised her statement to clarify that interviewing authors is often a rich, rewarding experience that enhances the reader’s experience.