Paying Attention Like Primo Levi: An Interview with Ann Goldstein

Stuart Woolf, a British historian and the first English-language translator of Primo Levi’s Auschwitz memoir If This Is a Man, wrote that Levi’s “interest in the translation of his books was ...

Stuart Woolf, a British historian and the first English-language translator of Primo Levi’s Auschwitz memoir If This Is a Man, wrote that Levi’s “interest in the translation of his books was exceptional.”1 This comes as no surprise, given that translation is a fundamental aspect of Levi’s writing, and that he considered it a vital tool in his inquiry into the human condition. Indeed, diverse languages, dialects, jargons, and their mutual translations recur throughout the idiosyncratic encyclopedia constituting his oeuvre.

With The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein for the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton, reading all of Levi in English is now possible. The anglophone public will now have the opportunity to assess the complexity of this great writer, to appreciate his acclaimed autobiographical works of witnessing together with lesser-known and previously unpublished stories and essays. Woolf is just one of the many distinguished translators who, working alongside and coordinated by the award-winning translator and New Yorker editor Goldstein, joined forces to present Levi’s work to English readers unabridged.

I spoke with Goldstein about the momentous result. Best-known as the American voice of Elena Ferrante’s hugely successful Neapolitan tetralogy, Goldstein has also translated the work of major Italian authors such as Giacomo Leopardi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Roberto Calasso. She has received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award. In our conversation, which begins with Levi, we discuss not only that multifaceted author, but also the exacting, “attentive, even obsessive” craft of the translator.


See also in this issue: Robert S . C. Gordon, “Hard Labor: On the Complete Works of Primo Levi.”

Franco Baldasso (FB):Would you start by telling us something about how Primo Levi’s Complete Works were conceived and published? It looks like it’s been a long road.


Ann Goldstein (AG): Robert Weil, at W. W. Norton, who had published the complete works of Isaac Babel, got the idea of doing the same for Primo Levi. In 1998 he started collecting the English rights, which were held by many different publishers, so it was a complicated project already. By around 2004, he had gotten everything except the rights to If This Is a Man. At that point I joined the project. The original intention was to use the existing translations. But once we started looking into the situation we found that Levi’s work had been published somewhat haphazardly; the main books, the important ones, of course, had all been translated (If This Is a Man, The Truce, The Periodic Table, The Drowned and the Saved, If Not Now, When?). But his many collections of stories and essays had been published in piecemeal fashion—that is, incompletely and in different formats from the originals—and some stories and essays hadn’t been published at all. So it began to make sense to think about new translations, especially if the unpublished pieces were to be newly translated. That is basically how it began. Certainly neither Bob nor Norton knew what they were getting into! (Nor did I.) There remained the problem of If This Is a Man, but eventually we learned that the original translator, Stuart Woolf, who is still alive, and who worked directly with Levi, had always wanted to revise his translation. So we were able to work with him.


FB: You are an award-winning translator from Italian. Is there anything unique in Levi’s prose that you found difficult to render in English?


AG: I found the science very difficult—not just the vocabulary, though that was tricky, especially for a nonscientist, but the descriptions of, say, processes. Take the history of the carbon atom in the final chapter of The Periodic Table, or the essay “Asymmetry and Life” (now in vol. III’s Uncollected Stories and Essays: 1981–1987), about the asymmetry, or “handedness,” of molecules.


FB: As a native Italian speaker who first read Levi in the original, I had the feeling that something of his voice was missing in previous translations of his works. It occurred to me it was Levi’s wit, his special sense of humor. How did you work to express in English this very idiosyncratic aspect of Levi’s writing?


AG: Naturally I’d be curious to know if you think the new translations have in fact been successful in capturing this aspect of Levi, or at least more successful than the old ones. Anyway, if they are successful, I think it has to do with sticking closely to the originals, not trying to force the humor or make it more obvious, underline it in some way, or even look for equivalents.


FB: Would you give us an example?


AG: One example might be the voice of Faussone, the Piedmontese rigger who is the protagonist of The Wrench, where rather than invent some sort of humorous accent or dialect the translation stays fairly close to the Italian, in both tone and sentence structure (or lack thereof); as the translator, Nathaniel Rich, notes in his afterword, Faussone’s language is “as clunky as a bag of hammers and screwdrivers,” and by staying with the Italian I think Rich captures if not all the jokes (of which, he notes, Levi thought 70 percent were lost on Italian readers), certainly the tone.2 Other examples might be some of the stories in Natural Histories, such as “Order at a Good Price,” or “The Versifier.”


FB: Levi is the first Italian author to have all his works translated into English. Do you think there is any difference between the Italian Primo Levi and the American Primo Levi?


AG: I think there is no way that the American Primo Levi is the same as the Italian. For one thing—and this is an issue in all translations—the original, the Italian, has layers and nuances and a frame of reference (cultural, literary, historical) that is lacking in the translation. In part, this has to do with what the reader brings. (I discuss some obvious examples of this, both literary and historical, in the essay In un’altra lingua.3) The American Primo Levi, no matter how good or accurate the translation, is always one step removed from the reader—he is seeing Levi through the translator’s eye. It’s been said with regard to poetry that the best way to understand a poem in a language one doesn’t know is to read several different translations, that each will capture a different aspect of the original. That is certainly less true in the case of prose in general, but there is an element of truth. In The Complete Works we tried to make the English Levi correspond, at least linguistically, as closely as possible to the Italian, to reduce the distance, so to speak.


FB: How does one go about translating into English Levi’s peculiar use of different languages, not to mention Italian dialects, in his writing?


AG: Our idea was to pretty much replicate Levi’s use of other languages, to use them when he does, without translation unless he gives a translation. As in your question about Levi’s humor, this perhaps comes under the heading of sticking closely to the text; in the first version of If This Is a Man—a book that has phrases and even dialogues in many different languages—the foreign words were translated into English; in a sense this is helpful to the reader, but Levi does not do this, and we felt it was more important for the reader to have the sensation of being in a Babel of languages. It’s a bit different with the words in dialect, and in the essays about language and words, where we did translate dialect, and in fact Levi, too, translates dialect into Italian.


FB: Italo Calvino once claimed that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”4 What does Levi have to say today, in your opinion?


AG: This seems a huge subject, so maybe I can just say one or two things. One important thing that Levi tells us, and of which he is a great exemplar, is to pay attention to the world: to the physical world, as Levi the scientist does, with all his senses. Among the many examples of this, especially in The Periodic Table, is a case, described in the chapter “Potassium,” where a failure to notice leads to near disaster. He also pays attention (and asks us to) to the human world: not in a coldly analytical or forensic way, but with compassion and with judgment. By example, too, he tells us to pay attention to language, to be precise in observation and expression.


FB: Given Levi’s painstaking attention to language and his stress on the ethical value of communication, did you feel a sort of moral responsibility while translating his words? Among many other cases, I think of the importance in Levi’s last book, The Drowned and the Saved, of the chapter titled, precisely, “Communication.”


AG: All translation entails moral responsibility of a sort. The translator has undertaken—pledged, in a sense—to express in his own language something written in another language: he thus has a responsibility to the author of the original work, and, especially, to the work itself. Michael Moore, in the afterword to his translation of The Drowned and the Saved, hints at a particular moral responsibility in the case of Levi, when he discusses the translation of the word colpa.5 Moral responsibility is not something the translators discussed specifically, but I think we were all conscious of a perhaps unusual commitment in working on Levi.


FB: Your essay In un’altra lingua concludes: “I haven’t mentioned sound specifically, but certainly it is a factor in the use and choice of words in translation.”6 Would you like to say more about this very interesting aspect of the translation process?


AG: Italian is a naturally mellifluous language; it almost can’t help sounding not only beautiful but expressive. The translator is not going to reproduce that, but in making a choice of words he, or I, might think about it. Levi uses pairs (or trios) of alliterative words, such as (to take a couple of examples from The Periodic Table) facili e franchi or un lungherone, lungo e liscio; if there is a natural pair in English I might use it, but there probably isn’t. So it’s not that I’m trying to reproduce the sound of Italian. But I think it’s a more or less conscious element of the choice of words I make as a translator. I could quote the example from The Truce that I discuss in In un’altra lingua, of the word sconquassate. I had narrowed down the choice to “ruined” or “wrecked.” We know that the camp was bombed and also burned, and both “wrecked” and “ruined” contain the idea of the devastation (other English possibilities might have been “shattered, smashed, devastated”). But “wrecked barracks” seemed ugly, because of the two ks and also because “wrecked” has only one syllable, and in the end I chose “ruined barracks” because to me it sounded better, not only as a term but in the entire sentence.


FB: You are also an editor at the New Yorker. Do your skills and experience as an editor inform your translation work in any appreciable way?


AG: Without a doubt my training and experience and skills as an editor and a copyeditor have a tremendous influence on my translation work. There is the need to be attentive, even obsessive, in general, but also to be attentive in particular to details—to grammar, style, the meaning of words, the relationship of words to the sentence, the paragraph, and so on. It’s work that is good training for the work of translation. Ideally, the editor’s job is to enable the writer to express himself as well as he can—to be himself. Similarly, the translator wants the writer he is translating to be represented as well as possible in the new language—to be as much himself as possible. And in a sense the translator and the editor are similarly invisible.


FB: I recently read your translation in the New Yorker of Jhumpa Lahiri’s inspiring article “Teaching Yourself Italian,” in which the writer recounts her struggles and ultimate success in learning and mastering a foreign language.7 What were some of your first encounters with Italian literature and how did you come to learn Italian?


AG: I think that Dante was my first encounter with Italian literature; I read the Divine Comedy in college and was overwhelmed by it, so that I wanted to read it in Italian. (In the Dante class I had in college, we read a parallel-text edition.) Quite a few years later I was able with some colleagues to organize an Italian class at the New Yorker; we studied grammar for a year and then we read the Divine Comedy.


FB: You are perhaps most widely known today as the English-language translator of Elena Ferrante. How does your approach to translation of contemporary and/or living authors differ with respect to that of classic and/or dead ones?


AG: In some sense translating Ferrante is like translating a dead author, since she is essentially absent. But in truth I haven’t worked that closely even with the living writers I’ve translated. I’ve worked a little with Alessandro Baricco, and I did work with Aldo Buzzi, the first author I translated. That was somewhat frustrating: for one thing because he was always rewriting and, for another, he often had his own ideas about the translation. As for Ferrante, if I have questions I can ask her, via email or through the editors of E/O (her publisher in Italy). With a classic writer—Levi, for example—there is a more intense anxiety about getting the translation right: in the sense of correct but also in the sense of conveying the work properly, so that the reasons that it is a classic are evident. In the case of Leopardi there were two editors, one English and one Italian (both Leopardi scholars), and a number of experts in various fields looking at the translation, so there was a lot of backup, so to speak.

One might feel somewhat freer with a contemporary writer, but I think that every translation, whether contemporary or not, presents a unique set of difficulties and solutions, so it’s hard to generalize.

FB: Do you have any sense that the great success of the Neapolitan novels has affected the prospects for publishing literature in English translation? Are there any other contemporary Italian authors whose books seem primed to receive anywhere near Ferrante’s reception?


AG: I would like to think that the success of Ferrante’s novels might have a good influence on the willingness of publishers to bring out works in translation; in fact, Ferrante apart, there are a number of small publishers now that concentrate on translation—Europa, Archipelago, New Vessel, New York Review Books (which doesn’t focus on translation but publishes a lot of translations), and so on. I don’t really know enough about contemporary Italian authors to say whether there are others who might have a similar reception.


FB: How has the great success of the Neapolitan novels changed your professional and/or personal life?


AG: I would say that the success of the novels combined with the absence of the author has put the translator in an unusual position—an unusual spotlight. So I’ve done a lot of presentations for the books, along with interviews, panels, talks, et cetera. That’s not something I ever expected to do, so that’s been something of a change.


FB: What are your favorite Italian writers and the ones you would like or would have liked to translate yourself?


AG: Levi, certainly: I would have liked to translate the Complete Works myself if it had been at all practicable. Elsa Morante (I’m actually going to do Arturo’s Island). As you know, I was part of the team that translated the Zibaldone of Giacomo Leopardi, and I would have liked to do more of that.


FB: And the Primo Levi book you hold most dear?


AG: Hard to say—I think I’ve loved most of them at some point or another, especially the ones I translated myself, The Truce, The Periodic Table, Lilith.


FB: To conclude, The Complete Works of Primo Levi reveals a complex, multifaceted author. Besides the uncompromising witness of the Holocaust and the secular thinker dissecting our world with the aid of science and humor, is there any other aspect of Levi’s composite personality that the new translations will illuminate?


AG: If one considers the pieces that have been translated for the first time what comes to mind is Levi as someone deeply interested in language—perhaps one could say, the philological Levi. A number of those pieces are specifically about language (which may in part explain why they were not translated); “Dizzying Heat,” for example, is essentially a series of palindromes (very clever in Italian but unreproduceable in English). Then, there are essays like “Leggere la Vita,” in which Levi, consulting a variety of dictionaries, in different languages, traces the history and meaning of the phrase leggere la vita (literally, “to read the life of”), and “The Squirrel,” which starts with a discussion of words in dialect and ends with a squirrel on a treadmill. Most readers of Levi will know from the first chapter of The Periodic Table, “Argon,” where Levi talks about the Jewish-Piedmontese language of his forebears, that language is a kind of obsession; and of course there is the obvious importance of language in If This Is a Man and The Truce (the understanding of German that is crucial to survival at Auschwitz; the scene where Levi speaks Latin to a Polish priest to find out where the cathedral—and the soup kitchen—in Kraków is).

So I think the new volumes show Levi as someone who could be playful with language; who liked to investigate the meanings of words and their origins; and who was able to use this knowledge of, skill with, and curiosity about words to meditate on and elucidate other aspects of life. icon

  1. Translator’s afterword to If This Is a Man, in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein (Liveright, 2015), p. 200.
  2. Translator’s afterword to The Wrench, in ibid., pp. 1115, 1116.
  3. Ann Goldstein and Domenico Scarpa, In un’altra lingua: In another language (Einaudi: 2015).
  4. Italo Calvino, “Why Read the Classics?” (1981), translated by Patrick Creagh, New York Review of Books, October 9, 1986.
  5. “The term ‘colpa’ in Italian can refer to a crime, a sin, a moral or material transgression, and their corollaries, fault and guilt. The colpa of the Germans and senso di colpa of the survivors are intrinsically linked, a bond that is broken when we translate into English. To my sensibility the attempted annihilation of European Jewry is an atrocity that cries out for a word louder than ‘crime’ or ‘sin,’ but colpa is the term that Levi uses, with characteristic restraint, and I hope that my decision to translate it as the ‘wrongs’ of the Germans conveys his moral authority.” Translator’s afterword to The Drowned and the Saved, in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, p. 2573.
  6. In un’altra lingua, p. 28.
  7. Jhumpa Lahiri, “Teach Yourself Italian,” translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, New Yorker, December 7, 2015.
Featured image: Argon. Photograph by Thomas Hawk / Flickr