Elena Ferrante’s writing is better in English than Italian

Naples, the setting for Ferrante’s novels.
Naples, the setting for Ferrante’s novels.
Image: Photo by Annalisa Merelli
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Sorry, New York Times Sunday Book Review, Elena Ferrante is not “one of the great novelists of our time.” Zadie Smith, Arundhati Roy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—these are all great novelists.

Ferrante is not, which is unfortunate, because she has a good story to tell.

About a month ago, while I was back in my hometown of Bergamo, near Milan, I finally picked up the first of Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels, L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend). I had been waiting to read it in Italian: so many people and publications I trust—The New Yorker! The New Yorker!—had sung the praise of this Italian writer that I could not wait to read her in my language.

The story of the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, spanning six decades in Naples, is an acute portrayal of the conflict inherent in many deep female friendships. Unsparingly, Ferrante looks at the violence and patriarchy of southern Italy after WWII, creating strong female characters that shine in contrast with mediocre, dull, and violent males. Alongside stunning commercial success, the novels have been praised by the critics as a work of genius, an outstanding feminist tetralogy.

I was ready to devour all four volumes over my holiday week. But by page 16 (the book started on page 15) of the first I was already too distracted by the flaws of the writing—the poor lexical choices, the odd constructions, the inconsistent tone—to be taken in by the story. Rather than guiding me on Elena and Lila’s journey, the writing just stood in the way—too visible, too forced.

The story has an arc strong enough to hold through a tetralogy—the violence and wonder of Naples, the clever portrayal of a female bond—but its lack of style holds it back from the realm of the greats.

Here’s a passage, picked at random (many would’ve served the same purpose), to explain what I mean.

The narrator, Elena, talks about a stimulating conversation she had with her friend Lila:

Mi ero sentita di nuovo brava, come se qualcosa mi avesse urtato la testa facendo insorgere immagini e parole.

The English translation reads:

I felt clever again, as if something had hit me in the head, bringing to the surface images and words.

That’s not quite what the Italian says. “Brava,” is not exactly clever—it means good, both in a scholastic and general way. It’s a very simple word, which is perfectly fine if it weren’t followed by the strange image of something hitting the head to make words and images rise up. Insorgere does not mean “bring to surface”—its etymology does, but the word is used in Italian to talk about a rebellion, or a problem arising. The idea of an insurgence of words and images, especially given the previous word choice, sounds affected.

This is something not many of the Italian critics (link in Italian) picked up on, though only few praised her as a great author. In Italy, Ferrante’s books are bestsellers, but it’s hard to tell how much of the interest is generated by her mysterious identity.

Most of my Italian friends hadn’t read any of her books—but many of my American ones had. I wondered: might the translation—by The New Yorker’s editor Ann Goldstein—be better than the original? A translator could simplify the language in a way that makes it more transparent—inoffensive, if you will—and lets the reader be captured by the tale without the annoyance of shoddy writing.

I have not read the whole book in English, though I made a few comparisons, as I did with the passage above. In most cases, indeed, the English is simpler. Where Ferrante writes “si vide con chiarezza” (“one could see clearly”), Goldstein translates “it was clear”; in place of the Italian “salutarle con ampi cenni,” which means something like “say bye with ample, hinting gestures,” (cenno means gesture but it’s used for small, fast gestures) the English reads, more plausibly “wave, with broad motions of her arms.” I could go on:

The most interesting part of this all is that Ferrante knows she’s not a great writer. She says so in L’amica Geniale.

When describing the writing of Lila, which she much admires, Elena says:

Lila sapeva parlare attraverso la scrittura; a differenza di me quando scrivevo […] lei si esprimeva con frasi sì curate, sì senza un errore pur non avendo continuato a studiare, ma—in più—non lasciava traccia di innaturalezza, non si sentiva l’artificio della scrittura. 

Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote […] she expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but—further—she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word.

Elena Greco does not have the talent of her “brilliant friend.” Nor does Ferrante, whoever she is.