“There wasn’t really a seam,” she says, between copy editing and translation, which she came into by the chance submission of an Italian manuscript to The New Yorker. Erstwhile editor Robert Gottlieb’s reflex was to reject the story, passed along to him in 1992 by cartoonist Saul Steinberg on behalf of the writer and architect Aldo Buzzi. “Just for the hell of it” Goldstein tried her hand at rendering “Chekhov in Sondrio” into English. Gottlieb reconsidered and introduced his readership to Buzzi, who admitted in a 1997 “self-interview” in The Paris Review “that when I began writing [this] would have seemed to me impossible.” Neither an Italian literature buff nor a formally trained translator, Goldstein got her start in translation by giving Buzzi his in the United States, receiving the PEN Renato Poggioli Prize for her rendition of his collection Journey to the Land of the Flies (1994). She had picked up Italian through an after-hours language class at The New Yorker in 1986 in hopes of reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, a desire tracing back to her days as a literature major at Bennington College.
As literary enablers go, Goldstein is among America’s most formidable and prolific. She gave Anglophone readerships the voices of Buzzi, Elena Ferrante, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alessandro Baricco, and sharpened those of John Updike, Janet Malcolm, and Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker. In 2008 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in translation to work on The Complete Works of Primo Levi, a three-volume behemoth published in September 2015, for which she served as editor and one of a stable of distinguished translators. Most recently, she translated Jhumpa Lahiri’s nonfiction debut, In Other Words, a meditation in Italian on her relationship to the language.
Our conversation covers the occupational hazards and limits of translation and traces the parallels between Ferrante and Levi.
The Complete Works of Primo Levi project has been more than a decade in the making. Can you tell us about its genesis?
Bob Weil, the editor-in-chief of Liveright, had published the complete Isaac Babel, which is a single beautiful volume, and he had always loved Levi. He got the idea that he wanted to do the complete Levi. He spent about five years collecting the English rights to all the Levi books, which were scattered among a variety of publishers, and his idea was to put together the existing translations. But when I joined the project, in 2004, and he and I started looking at them, we realized that it didn’t really make sense to do that.
Was there a discontinuity of voice across those translations, in that kind of amalgamative strategy?
Absolutely. For one thing, they had been done at different times. The Truce and the book that has been translated as Survival in Auschwitz but whose actual title is If This Is a Man—the translation of those was fifty years old and British. Through various means we eventually got in touch with Stuart Woolf, the original translator, and it turned out that he had always wanted to revise his translation of If This Is a Man. A second problem about using the existing translations was that the books had been translated in a haphazard fashion into English. Some of them—The Periodic Table, The Wrench—were complete books in Italian and had been translated as they were. But then there were collections of stories—Levi published quite a few collections of stories that he put together himself, and when people came to publish them in English they took a few from here and a few from there. The collections in English were kind of piecemeal. So we decided to follow the 1997 Complete Works in Italian, which is now being revised. Things of Levi’s keep turning up. Even the Primo Levi Center in Turin keeps finding an interview here, something he did for a newspaper there, so the new Complete Works in Italian is also going to be an improved Complete Works.
How did you decide which of Levi’s works to translate personally and which to delegate to other translators?
I knew that I wanted the odd collection of stories called Lilít, or Lilith. I decided to do The Truce, and there was a little back and forth over who was going to do The Periodic Table, and in the end I decided to do that myself. So I think I did well for myself. The Periodic Table is a great book, as is The Truce, which I think has been overshadowed somewhat by If This Is a Man.
As a translator, what do you make of Levi’s meditation on language in the first chapter of The Periodic Table?
If you consider how much and how carefully he thought about his own language, it’s daunting to then think about translating it, because you always feel that you might not have the right word. In that sense, I would say it humbles you, if not terrifies you. All writers, of course, think about language, but Levi, especially, was so particular.
It had an existential importance for him in Auschwitz, where he wasn’t able to write, to read. There’s a scene at the end where he writes some words and then immediately destroys them. He was lucky because he knew a little German. People who didn’t know German didn’t know what they were supposed to do and so they died.
He also has an essay in which he talks about the language of chemists and how they have so many different words for colors and smells that other writers may not have. So there’s a lot of daunting-ness for the translator.
Did the more technical scientific vocabulary pose a challenge for you?
Yes, absolutely. It was for me the hardest thing in Levi to translate. The last chapter of The Periodic Table is about the carbon atom. He describes the process of the life of a carbon atom, of how in the course of more than a century it travels through many chemical forms. It’s hard enough to understand in any language.
So did you have a background in science that was of use in translating Levi?
No, I had no science background. I have an array of consultants. I wish I had more of a science background, just to understand some of this stuff.
Do you fear that a general audience without a science background might find The Periodic Table a difficult read?
I don’t think so. You don’t have to understand every little detail to read it, unlike if you’re translating it. And the metaphorical aspect is strong.
Right, it seems somewhat paradoxical. For the translator, the most challenging part of the text to transmute from Italian into English is also perhaps the thing that’s most lost upon your readership.
Yes, that’s one way of putting it. In my day job I’m a copy editor. The New Yorker’s readers probably won’t notice if the commas are all in the right place. But if they aren’t in the right place then you would notice that there’s something weird about it. I imagine the same to be true of translating Levi. If you didn’t have the science right, you would just feel that there’s something off. At least I like to think that.
Does your eye for copyediting inform your translation process?
Absolutely. I think there’s no question that being used to dealing with details, with looking at things very closely—that’s been part of the way my mind works.
So was the transition from copyediting to professional literary translation somewhat seamless for you?
I didn’t really think of it as a transition. They didn’t seem like totally different processes. I would say there wasn’t really a seam. There are certainly similarities. Especially at a place like The New Yorker, where there’s a tradition of trying to get things right.
The release of your translation of Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final novel in the Neapolitan series happened to align with the publication of The Complete Works. How would you compare Levi and Ferrante as writers?
They’re very different writers, and, I have to say, it’s strange that they happened at the same time. Ferrante’s emotions—or those of her characters—are more on the surface. I think Levi’s also a very deeply emotional writer, but it’s not in your face. He’s a careful, balanced, even-tempered writer. With Ferrante, it just sort of pours out. It’s controlled, but it comes out.
I’ve been working on a translation of a book that was originally going to be published alongside The Story of the Lost Child, but is now scheduled for next November. It’s a collection of mainly letters and interviews that Ferrante has given over the years. The book is titled La frantumaglia, which is a sort of made-up word that means, roughly, a collection of fragments, and one of the pieces also has that title. Two journalists sent Ferrante some questions and in response she wrote some forty pages—a kind of outpouring of thoughts on suffering, on cities, on childhood. It’s kind of a strange thing because it’s Ferrante unedited, even unedited by her in a way. I think this excerpt from it is a great description of her own writing:
The eye calmly tells the story, creates clear accounts, makes events go slowly, but when the wave of a feeling arrives the writing arches, becomes excited, spins around, breathlessly absorbing everything, putting into circulation memories, desires.It becomes very intense. I have an example here: this was one sentence that sort of illustrates her point, in which she takes you through a whole range of feeling and event. It’s from the fourth book and she’s talking about Nino:
But when we were alone he made me a speech anxious in tone and passionate in content, whose sense was that I should trust him, that although our situation was complicated we would surely untangle it, that to do so, however, we had to go home. We couldn’t flee from Montpellier to Paris and then to who knows what other city. We had to confront our spouses and begin our life together.A lot happens in that sentence. Her writing has been described as raw, not uncontrolled, but almost uncontrolled, whereas Levi is somewhat the opposite. I keep thinking of his sentences as very balanced, whereas hers tumble out. It’s hard to make her writing come out in English and not only make sense but also be grammatical. His precision is very hard—as I was saying earlier about the scientific language.
In If This Is a Man and some of Levi’s other works, too, the subject is hard. You don’t want to be there. The same can also be true of Ferrante, when she, or rather her characters are in very intense situations and people are being horrible to each other. You just don’t want to be there.
That reminds me of the scene in The Days of Abandonment when Olga can’t unlock the door of her apartment and is trapped inside, a scene that actually made me physically anxious.
Yes, exactly! By the way, in terms of precision, that was also a difficult passage to translate because of all the parts of the lock. An Italian door is actually rather different from an American one. I think she calls it a porta blindata—it’s like a blank door almost, and there are giant keys that turn about a hundred times before they unlock. Sometimes there’s no doorknob.
So an American might actually have trouble opening it?
Yes, I’ve had plenty of trouble with these doors.
Did you feel some sort of kinship with that passage?
I did, and I have trouble with locks anyway, so I felt a huge kinship with that passage. That whole moment of anxiety, practically to the point of insanity—yes, I felt very sympathetic, very in that moment with Olga.
I want to return to the contrast you drew earlier between Levi and Ferrante. Superficially it would seem to reinforce our gender stereotypes, right? That Ferrante is the emotional, hysterical woman and Levi is this precise, rational, scientific mind. To what extent do you find the opposite to be true, that Levi has this wellspring of emotion underlying his writing and Ferrante has this sort of blunt, brutal style?
I think that’s true. There’s a huge amount of emotion in Levi’s books. One obvious place is the chapter with The Canto of Ulysses, the Dante chapter in If This Is a Man. He brings his whole life into that canto: his education—all Italians learn Dante—his childhood, his growing up, his culture, his young manhood. The emotion is unmistakable even when it’s not explicit. With Ferrante, the emotion is more on the surface but there’s also a kind of control. It’s interesting: in La frantumaglia there are some passages, a couple from Troubling Love and a couple from The Days of Abandonment, that she didn’t use in the books. And the difference in the writing, which was obviously polished, rewritten for the books, and the sort of outpouring is fascinating.
What do those earlier passages look like?
The passages where she’s just talking, where she’s writing and trying to answer the questions that the two journalists have asked her, sort of meander. They go this way; they go that way; the sentences aren’t very well formed. It’s like a first draft, whereas the so-to-speak outtakes that were meant for the books are controlled. She uses the word “govern.” The prose is governed. Behind her outpourings there’s control over the writing.
How self-conscious is your translation process? It seems to me like hyper-scrutiny of the self might lead to a crippling obsession with rendering each individual word, whereas a certain lack of self-consciousness might lead one to gloss over mistakes.
That’s very true. You can’t be constantly second guessing yourself, really. It’s tempting. At a certain point you’re sick of it. But I think that in a way the translation of The Periodic Table benefited from the fact that I didn’t look at it for a long amount of time. I went back to it after a few months. The Ferrantes have all been done on such a tight schedule. I don’t know how to judge them, really. I think that maybe they would have been better if I’d been able to—but actually, to tell you the truth, on the fourth one, I did make a lot of changes in the galleys, more than I usually do, and then I even read the revised galleys one more time. But maybe it would have been better if I’d had a whole year to work on it, to put it aside and come back to it. I also have found that I like to work on more than one thing at once, because I think that’s helpful, to be working on two different styles at once. So that kind of takes you away and brings you back.
Did you have any particular interest in Ferrante or Levi before you translated them?
I didn’t even know about Ferrante.
So you were introduced to her through the labor of translation?
Yes, because, as I said, I’m not really a scholar. I didn’t come to this through being an Italianist or even a person who knew about Italian literature. I sort of scrambled to feel competent. I know a little more now, obviously, but I don’t have a good overview of it.
When did you learn Italian and why?
I always wanted to learn Italian and then in 1986, probably before you were born, we started an Italian class at The New Yorker. One of my colleagues was taking Greek at Columbia, and one of her classmates was the daughter of a well-known Italian professor at Columbia, called Maristella Lorch. There were two daughters, and first one and then the other came to The New Yorker and we had a class. I wanted to read Dante in Italian. That was the main reason I wanted to learn Italian. So we studied Italian for a year and then we read Dante. It was kind of crazy.
I read somewhere that you got your start in translation because there was an Italian manuscript that needed to be reviewed for The New Yorker and you were the one in the office who read Italian.
That’s right. The artist Saul Steinberg had a friend named Aldo Buzzi, who wrote a story that Saul sent to Bob Gottlieb, the editor at the time, and Bob said we just have to write Buzzi a polite note saying that we can’t publish this. But I read it and it was wonderful, so that’s the thing that I translated just for the hell of it and then Bob published it. It’s called “Chekhov in Sondrio.”
As an editor, how did you try to maintain stability and continuity of voice across the Levi anthology?
I hoped [laughs]. No, my own style is pretty straightforward and literal-minded, so I tried to keep all the translations in that form. I checked them all.
And how did you find the translators for each of the texts?
Well, I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started out, in terms of organizing a big project, and I think I might have done it differently. As for the translators, essentially I asked translators I knew, but I think it worked out pretty well.
What might you have done differently?
If I had known that this was going to be an eleven-year project, I might have considered translating it all myself. Because editing a translation is really hard. Obviously you’ll find things that are wrong; I mean, the best translator is going to make mistakes—you just miss some things. Those can be fixed. Then there are interpretations and you can see how a translator got there but you wouldn’t necessarily have gotten there yourself. Then there are things that aren’t really wrong but you wouldn’t have done them that way yourself. So there is a certain anxiety in going through all that. So I think I might have been tempted to do all the books (apart from the poetry—I really think poetry’s just too hard).
Which of the element vignettes in The Periodic Table is your favorite?
I love the opening one—“Argon,” about language and Levi’s family. Did you know that Calvino was Levi’s editor at Einaudi? There are some letters from when Levi was putting The Periodic Table together and he started with “Argon.” Calvino thought that “Argon” shouldn’t come first because it’s actually the only one where the element is not literally in the story. So in a way, it’s an atypical one.
Do you know if Levi read Calvino?
He did, yes. He must have read at least Cosmicomics. The other person who originally rejected If This Is a Man at Einaudi was Natalia Ginzburg, so it was kind of a tight little circle.
What do you think is most lost in your translations of Levi and Ferrante?
In Italian you can have a pile of clauses or phrases and it works. You can follow. In English it’s much harder to do that; you have to put in an “and” or a semicolon or a sentence break. Romance languages also have gender, so the adjective doesn’t have to be next to its noun, the verb doesn’t have to be next to its subject. English syntax isn’t quite as flexible as Italian.
Did you have any direct correspondence with Ferrante or do you work with her through the publishers? Does her anonymity make it harder to translate her?
I’ve translated a lot of dead writers, so I’ve worked directly with hardly any of the people I’ve translated, oddly. Ferrante is more present than she used to be. I think I could email her directly, but I’m in the habit of going through the publishers. When I have a question I ask them and if they can’t answer it then they ask her. At this point I feel that the Ferrante I know from her books, from all of them—I guess I have an idea of the person who’s writing these books. I don’t mean of the character, but of the person writing. So I don’t feel any desire to meet her.
You might be able to say that you know her, at least in her capacity as a writer, better than anyone else.
Yes, I kind of feel that way. And over the years she’s said many things about why she doesn’t want to be in public. I respect that. If she wants to do it, and she’s been able to get away with it, in a sense, in a world in which writers are such celebrities, I don’t mind it.
Can you describe what it was like to translate Jhumpa Lahiri’s new memoir, In Other Words, a meditation on her relationship with Italian, “the violent and regenerative metamorphosis” she underwent in learning it? How did it compare to translating Ferrante and Levi?
Lahiri is a wonderful writer in English, so the idea of translating her was daunting. And even though I obviously wasn’t going to re-create Lahiri’s English, I felt that I had a high standard to meet. Ferrante and Levi are more complex writers, so those translations involved more what you might call structural or syntactical difficulties; but every translation has its own subtleties.
Lahiri was the rare writer in your translation repertoire whom you were able to work with directly. What was that like? Was collaboration an adjustment for you?
We didn’t really work directly together until near the end: once the translation was done, Lahiri went over it and made suggestions, mostly in nuances of meaning of verbs and adjectives, which I incorporated. We did eventually go over the copyedited manuscript together, and we generally agreed about most questions. Last fall, just before the book came out, Lahiri did the audiobook recordings of both the English and the Italian, and in that process, interestingly, she found a number of things she wanted to change.
In an essay published on the Harper’s blog in December 2015 called “Mission Impossible,” James Marcus spotlighted some of the “small, insoluble dilemmas” you faced in translating Levi’s The Periodic Table and wrote, “The problems, the potholes, the pratfalls, are baked into the very process of translation.” I would love to hear your own philosophy of and approach to the occupational hazards of translation.
I’m not sure I can improve on that statement of the difficulties. No matter how many times you go over a translation, some improvement almost always occurs to you. Similarly, in almost any manuscript there is likely some small mistake, a pothole or pratfall. Levi in an essay on translation mentions some of the traps in transferring a text from one language to another—false friends, idiomatic phrases, local terms. My approach is to try to be very careful, to go back over the manuscript, to take nothing for granted. Nevertheless something always gets by.