An Evening with Ann Goldstein

Lost ChildIt isn’t often that I venture into the city from my home in the far-flung outer suburbs of Melbourne, and it’s even rarer for me to do so on a school night.  However, the visit of a world-famous translator is something I hate to miss out on, so last Wednesday saw me make the trek to see Ann Goldstein, best-known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s work, in conversation at Federation Square.  Sadly, though, it wasn’t all it might have been – let me explain why…

UPDATE – 20/6/16: You can watch the whole talk here 🙂

While the English translations of Elena Ferrante’s books are published by Europa Editions in the UK and US, here in Australia we’ve had new editions (with much better covers…) from local press Text PublishingThe Neapolitan Novels have been a great success, bringing a lot of interest in Ferrante and her translator, hence Goldstein’s trip Down Under (with this event organised by Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre).  Wednesday evening saw a large crowd attracted to the Deakin Edge lecture hall – I was near the front, so I’m not sure exactly how many people were present, but it would have been in the high hundreds for sure.

The moderator was Robert Dessaix, an Australian writer and translator, and virtually his first question was whether we should care who Ferrante is.  Of course, Goldstein’s reply was that her works speak for her; in them, we feel the voice and presence of the creator.  She added, however, that Ferrante’s forthcoming non-fiction work (Frantumaglia) would be a little more revealing, giving the reader some insights into the writer (which is certainly something to look forward to).

The talk then moved on to how Goldstein came to translate Ferrante, leading the translator to discuss her first encounter with the Italian writer’s work (with The Days of Abandonment).  Europa were looking for a translator, so Goldstein read the book to see if it was something she might be interested in – and it was.  She felt she was in the mind of someone who she recognised, but who expressed her own feelings better than she could herself.  While Goldstein was clear that Ferrante’s style is nothing out of the ordinary, it was what was being said that convinced her to go for the opportunity to translate the book (and the subsequent work).

The next topic of conversation was ‘Ferrante Fever’, and the speakers discussed why it has taken hold.  Goldstein’s take on this is that it comes from the way Ferrante explores relationships; there’s an almost forensic examination of how Lila and Lenù get along, something which Goldstein said is rare in literature.  The books also look at the idea of rivalry in friendships, a concept that people (in the Anglosphere, at any rate) can have a hard time dealing with.  Dessaix commented that this made it sound like a soap opera, to which Goldstein agreed, with the caveat that it’s one which digs much deeper than your average soap…

Another reason for the success of the books, according to Goldstein, is the contrast between the prosaic nature of the characters’ behaviour, and their larger-than-life qualities.  Ferrante is a great writer of events (e.g. the weddings), using minute details to construct the scenes from multiple angles, enhancing the effect of what are, in truth, commonplace events.  There was an interesting comment at this point on a couple of Ferrante’s favourite writers, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen.  While Dessaix found it strange that people compared Ferrante’s work with Austen’s, Goldstein drew out some parallels, particularly between Lila and Lenù and the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility (Ferrante apparently contributed a foreword to an Italian translation of the book!).

Moving away from Ferrante, Dessaix and Goldstein touched on a few different topics.  Goldstein talked about learning Italian to enable her to read Dante in the original, before briefly touching on translating Jhumpa Lahiri (stressing that her translation of In Other Words focused on bringing across the simplicity of the original by using simple – not poor – English).  She also discussed the difficulty of translating sex scenes, with the major sticking point being the boredom of repetition (a comment which drew laughs from the crowd), returning here to Ferrante to comment on how the few sex scenes in her writing were clumsy, nasty, failed efforts.  When asked if she was sad at having come to the end of her work on the Neapolitan Novels, Goldstein was clear that it wasn’t the end of the world.  She might miss it a little, but she’s certainly not in mourning for them…

Reading the above, it may sound like a good time was had by all, but this was certainly not the case.  I rarely felt that we got the most from Goldstein in this talk, and part of the issue was the lack of focus in the talk.  Above, I’ve tried to group ideas, but in truth I was never sure if the main focus was Goldstein, Ferrante, the Neapolitan Novels or the art of translation.  It was all very bitty, with meandering discussions, many short answers and frequent dead ends.

The main problem, though, was Dessaix, who made for a terrible moderator.  Quite apart from an obvious lack of chemistry between the two speakers, it was clear that Dessaix simply likes the sound of his own voice and was determined to use the occasion to talk at length.  At times, we were ‘treated’ to several minutes of Dessaix musing out loud, tolerating occasional (short) interjections from Goldstein before he sallied forth again.  He also insisted on talking about his own work, unnecessarily, and the longer it all went on, the more bored Goldstein looked, and the drier and shorter her replies became.  I’m not a big fan of the word ‘mansplaining’ as it is often used on social media to respond to genuine disagreement rather than any real patronising tone, but if ever there was a case to illustrate the term, this was it…

At the end of the talk, Dessaix said he’d better be quiet so that people could ask questions (45 minutes too late…), and I was lucky enough to get to contribute one.  Having heard enough about Ferrante, I decided to ask about the recent controversy regarding Tim Parks’ comments on the Primo Levi anthology Goldstein edited – and it soon became clear that I’d only succeeded in making her night even more uncomfortable than it already was.  While she was very polite about it and tried to explain to the audience what I was talking about and how she had tried to stay out of the drama, she seemed visibly affected by it all.  Afterwards, I made a point of going over to her (risking the wrath of the snarling attendants…) to apologise for putting her on the spot…

So, not the best of talks, then…  It’s a shame, as I think Goldstein could have provided a lot more information and entertainment (if she’d been allowed to).  This isn’t the first time I’ve been to a talk hijacked by the person whose job it was to keep the conversation flowing (Eleanor Catton’s talk at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival last year is one that comes to mind…), and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  Sadly, though, as I made the long train and bus journey home, I was wondering if it was really worth the effort.  Maybe next time I’ll just stay at home and read instead…

13 thoughts on “An Evening with Ann Goldstein

  1. A fascinating event to attend, though it does sound very uncomfortable. I envy you the experience nevertheless. I went to a small author event a couple of months ago, where the young woman asking the questions was very patronising I’m sure the author was as irritated as I was. By the end she had this lovely tight, polite smile fixed in place.


  2. That sounds like a very frustrating experience. I’ve been to a number of author events since I started my blog but I can’t think of any occasion where the moderator has taken over the conversation in such an extreme way. The MBIP event at Foyles bookshop a couple of weeks ago featuring Deborah Smith, Daniel Hahn, Charlotte Collins and Ekin Oklap was very well moderated but it was disappointing that the event only lasted for just over an hour. Given that there were four translators, there should have been more time for all of them to talk about their work in more depth.


    1. Clare – Unfortunately, book events rarely last that long. The standard seems to be 45-50 minutes plus Q & A up to the hour…


  3. It’s a pity, but sometimes this kind of event is indeed “hijacked” by someone that doesn’t understand his/her role correctly. I think everyone that goes regularly to readings and discussions with authors and translators could at least contribute one or two personal experiences that are quite similar to yours.


    1. Thomas – It does seem as if it’s not an uncommon experience. If only the people who moderated these things thought a little about their role before the talk…


  4. Oh, I share your pain. I’ve been to several events where the chairs have been terrible. Now I pick and choose often on the basis of who is chairing! A good chair is there to moderate/direct/guide the discussion, not hijack it! As for audience questions, I wish they were not part of proceedings … Most of the time the questions aren’t questions, it’s just an audience member wanting to waffle on about themselves or show how clever they are. Questions should be left to one-on-one at the book signing afterwards to spare everyone the pain of listening to boring anecdotes!


    1. Kim – I quite like Qs, as long as they’re relevant, but I suppose more discussion time would (usually!) be better. I think in future, like you, I’ll be keeping an eye on who’s been chosen to chair the discussion 😉


  5. Oh, dear, what a shame! I heard Ann Goldstein speak at a panel about translation (together with the fab Margaret Jull Costa) and they both had such interesting things to say. But they can only say them if they are allowed to say them and given the opportunity.


  6. Sorry you felt the need to apologize for your question. I thought Parks raised some valid criticisms of Goldstein’s translations and of the overall editing job on the Levi volumes. It’s a puzzlement to me that Goldstein has attained this quasi-rock-star status as a translator of Italian when she hasn’t lived the language. Her academic, literal approach results in some awkward renderings.


    1. Elizabeth – I felt sorry more because the night was already tough enough for her with the weak moderator…

      Re: Parks and Ferrante, most people have been rather partisan about it, but the truth is somewhere in the middle. What irks a lot of people (and many translators I ‘m lucky enough to be able to discuss this with) is more how he goes about this all than what he actually says. For someone with a high-profile column on translation, he spends a lot of time criticising his peers…

      P.S. Not sure if you’ve already seen this, but I posted last Sunday on another event I attended – this time with Parks!


Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.