I am very lucky to be able to read in three different languages – English, French and Italian – and Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels about two friends growing up together in Naples is some of the best foreign fiction I’ve read.
This week I came across an interview with Ann Goldstein, who translated Ferrante’s novels into English, on the Guardian website. I was surprised to find out that Goldstein didn’t learn Italian until she was in her 30s. What’s more, she’s not the only literary translator to have taken up language learning as an adult. George Szirtes, who is interviewed in the same article, was born in Budapest, moved to England as a refugee when he was eight, and learned Hungarian again as an adult. He has since translated a number of Hungarian writers.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Goldstein is in love with Italian. “It’s a beautiful language,” she says, “musical, very expressive.” This contrasts what Deborah Smith, who translates from Korean to English, says: “I wanted to be a translator because I love English. I find some aspects of Korean very beautiful, but it doesn’t have the resonances that English has for me.” Each to their own.
Something else that surprised me when reading the interviews with literary translators is the fact that a number of them are not comfortable speaking the language from which they translate. Goldstein, for example, says: “my spoken Italian is not as good as my reading Italian.” That said, having translated Ferrante’s novels, her reading Italian is clearly outstanding – so her spoken Italian can’t be that bad. As for Smith, she comments: “I still find having a conversation in Korean difficult.”
You can’t argue with the linguistic talent of published literary translators. Nevertheless, I tend to agree with Melanie Mauthner, who translates from French to English, when she says: “as a translator, my task is to hear a text with its flow, rhythm, syntax, register and diction, to hear it anew in my head.” Translation is less about the direct transferal of words, phrases and grammatical structures as it is about being familiar with both languages you are working with, and having a sense of how what is being said in the first would be conveyed in the second. I also agree with the author of the piece, Rachel Cooke, who points out that literary translations “works of art in their own right.”
I would encourage anybody who has read foreign fiction, either in its original or translated state, to read the interviews. And for anybody who is yet to discover the novels of Elena Ferrante, I highly recommend those too.