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Translator talks importance, difficulties of language

Former New Yorker head copy editor Ann Goldstein discusses nuances of translating literature

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 28, 2020

Translator Ann Goldstein, known for her translations of Elena Ferrante, discussed the challenges of conveying an author’s intended meaning.

Acclaimed translator of Italian works and former Head of the Copy Department for the New Yorker Ann Goldstein spoke on the nuanced and complex process of adapting foreign-language literature into English during the keynote address of the Center for Language Studies’ Translation Across Disciplines conference Thursday evening.

The conference aims to highlight “cross-disciplinary interest in the field of translation, modern languages and the humanities,” and involves many University departments, said Director of the Center for Language Studies Jane Sokolosky in an introduction before the address.

Goldstein is a recipient of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award, as well as awards from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is also known for her translations of Elena Ferrante, a well-known Italian writer who has published numerous works over the past two decades and was listed as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2016. Goldstein’s translation of Ferrante’s “The Story of a New Name” was shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award.

Goldstein began doing literary translation “almost by accident,” after enrolling in an Italian night class while working as a copy-editor at the New Yorker. When her instructor assigned her a work by Dante Alighieri for the class, Goldstein took up the challenge of translating literature to English to benefit her own learning.

Goldstein began her address by noting the “existential importance that language can have,” providing the example of author Primo Levi, whose work Goldstein has extensively translated. Levi was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, and found that his rudimentary knowledge of German helped keep him alive in the camp.

Goldstein then delved into “the crucial role of the translator … how to get the text right, how to convey words, tone, meaning (and) style,” and how daunting it can be to accurately translate an author’s intended meaning. “You can never have (a translation) that’s exactly the same,” she said. “It can’t be, by definition. And maybe that’s not the goal.”

Much of Goldstein’s talk detailed the decisions she must make as a translator, including how to convey regional dialects in a different language, translate syntactically flexible Italian to relatively inflexible English and adapt cultural references in a way that is accessible to non-Italians.

In advice to an undergraduate student during a question-and-answer session following the talk, Goldstein recommended “you should have a day job. You cannot support yourself as a translator.” But she added that, partially as a result of Ferrante’s recent popularity, “the role of the translator has become … more vivid. People do tend to realize that there’s a translator involved in bringing you this book.”

Goldstein also discussed the sense of ownership she feels towards the texts she translates. “I feel like no one else should translate Ferrante,” she said, laughing.

Goldstein concluded by commenting on her straddling of the language boundary. “I think Italian is the most beautiful, perfect language in the world,” she said. “But English has its strengths.”

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