To Translate Is to Betray: On the Elena Ferrante Phenomenon in Italy and the US

The stunning fortunes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in the United States have only recently begun to affect their reception in the author’s native country, giving rise to competing theories ...

The stunning fortunes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in the United States have only recently begun to affect their reception in the author’s native country, giving rise to competing theories and occasionally ugly polemics: Are Italians simply unable to recognize greatness in one of their own? Are American readers uncritically falling for sentimental “women’s” novels? Is the real Elena Ferrante actually a man, or even a collaboration among several writers? Should a pseudonymous author with no public profile be eligible to compete for Italy’s most prestigious literary award? Then, just last month, came the apparent unmasking of the author’s identity. What should we stateside sufferers of “Ferrante fever” make of it all?

In 1991, on the eve of the publication of her first novel, Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante sent a letter to her publisher explaining her decision to use a pseudonym and make no public appearances to promote the book. The letter set out a theory of the author with the declarative texture of a manifesto: “I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.”1 Ferrante continues, comparing literary texts to gifts from the Italian Santa Claus, the Befana: “True miracles,” she writes, “are the ones whose makers will never be known.”2

It’s a metaphor I find troubling, one that Marx might have glossed as follows: the magical quality of the commodity—in this case, the literary text—is the result of an erasure of labor. Is this really what Ferrante means? I don’t think so. Such an interpretation is challenged throughout her oeuvre by an unwavering interest in work. Perhaps the theme emerges most vividly in the third volume of the Neapolitan tetralogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which chronicles the savage working conditions in a sausage factory and the brutality with which efforts at labor organization are crushed.

But more relevant than factory work for a consideration of the Befana metaphor is the labor of writing (and more broadly, working with words), which recurs in each of Ferrante’s novels. Troubling Love is about a comic-strip artist who struggles to find language to accompany the images of her childhood; and its very title is indebted to the labors of translation.3 The Days of Abandonment, published 10 years later, is about a woman who begins writing as her marriage collapses. The Lost Daughter is about a professor of English literature.

The Neapolitan Novels tell the story of a friendship formed around the pleasures of fabulation. Essential to the story’s progress are a series of texts that result from negotiations between spontaneous brilliance and laborious revision. The first volume begins with a telephone call to the narrator, Elena Greco, announcing that Lila, the eponymous brilliant friend, has disappeared without a trace; “The Blue Fairy,” the dazzling tale written by Lila as a schoolgirl, is present not through direct quotation but through the narrator’s description, and it is consigned to a pyre long before the present of the tetralogy’s narration.

In the second volume, The Story of a New Name, Elena receives a letter from Lila that seems to effortlessly embody the easy rhythm of speech in writing; we later learn the letter is the result of a torment of drafting and revision. The volume opens with Elena throwing the writing entrusted to her by Lila into the Arno River, a gesture whose significance would be clear to any Italian reader: Alessandro Manzoni, author of The Betrothed, famously wrote that he had moved to Florence to rinse his rags in the Arno, that is, to Tuscanize his manuscript, purging it of linguistic traces of his native Milan.

In the final volume of the tetralogy, The Story of the Lost Child, the brilliant work Elena imagines Lila to be writing—one that would reinvigorate the form of the novel and revive Naples, condensing all its passion and violence into a language as literary as Italian and as visceral as dialect—fails to materialize. Such a book, Elena imagines, would be her undoing: “The book would become—even just for me—the proof of my failure. Reading it, I would understand how I should have written but was never able to. … My whole life would be reduced to a petty battle to change social class.”4 The Neapolitan novels (according to their fiction) are only a shadowy approximation of the work of true genius. Lila’s masterpiece—were it to be written—would reveal Elena’s books to be mere translations into a language capable of signifying outside the neighborhood. Instead, Lila leaves no trace, save for her presence in the pages of the Neapolitan novels. The novels, then, seem to perform the Italian aphorism “tradurre è tradire”: to translate is to betray. They translate by rewriting Lila’s lost pages, along with the Neapolitan dialect that is continually alluded to but virtually excluded from the tetralogy. They betray not only by dulling Lila’s expressive force, or by rendering the experience of the neighborhood in a language with the potential to grant Elena access to a different social class, but also by their very existence, as Elena had promised Lila never to write about her.

If the metaphor of the Befana is at odds with Ferrante’s interest in the labor of working with words, it is compatible with Roland Barthes’s seminal 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” which heralds the liberation of the literary critic from the oppressive shackles of authorial intent. Barthes writes: “We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”5 Barthes’s claim drew on and contributed to a body of theory dedicated to an idea that now seems obvious: that language itself is overdetermined, bursting with intentions and implications that no author could call his or her own.

However fundamental the death of the author remains to literary criticism, no less so is Michel Foucault’s response, “What is an Author?,” published two years after Barthes’s essay. For Foucault, to make the author disappear, it is not sufficient to simply state that the author has done so. Pointing to the influence that authorship continues to exert, he instead proposes the category of the “author function,” distinct from the real individual who inhabits the role. In the case of Ferrante, it seems clear that the “author function” is robust, despite—or, as some have argued (see below), because of—the writer’s physical absence. Building on Foucault’s work, Italian literary critic Carla Benedetti has coined the term “authorialism” to describe how, in the modern system of artistic production, having an author is the very condition of possibility for a work of art. She dismisses the debates that followed from the interventions of Barthes and Foucault, which divided authors between real and implied, empirical and ideal: “Someday these distinctions will appear as byzantine as a disquisition on the sex of angels.”6

I note the death and resuscitation of the author largely to justify my prurient interest in the identity of Ferrante, my guilty participation in the scandalmongering media obsession. It’s an interest that requires particular justification because it has been judged politically repugnant—complicit with Berlusconismo—by Ferrante herself. In her most recent interview, she explains that while she first chose anonymity because of her shyness, she remained committed to the choice because of her disgust with the incessant self-promotion and banal chatter required of authors.7

Until recently, the fact of Ferrante’s pseudonymity played a fairly small role in the reception of her work. When Troubling Love originally appeared, in 1992, it generated a small but devoted readership and garnered the attention of a handful of literary critics in Italy and the United States, particularly those interested in gender and sexuality and Italian feminist theory. Three years after the publication of Troubling Love, Mario Martone adapted it for the cinema, introducing Ferrante to a broader audience. In 2005, her second novel, The Days of Abandonment, was the first to be translated into English, followed by Troubling Love in 2006. Both were “Briefly Noted” in the New Yorker, and Daniel Soar reviewed the former for the London Review of Books.8 Ferrante’s third novel, The Lost Daughter, was published in 2006 in Italy and in 2008 in the United States. With three novels in translation, she had a considerable readership in Italy and beyond, but it wasn’t until the 2012 publication of the first of the Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, and James Wood’s glowing 2013 New Yorker article, that we could really speak of the “Ferrante phenomenon” or “Ferrante fever.”9

Ferrante’s ascent, in the United States, to the status of “literary rock star” has changed the conversation about her in Italy, which now seems polarized into two camps, the self-flagellating and the snidely condescending. The self-flagellating insist that Italy is unable to recognize and retain its native talent. This is the subject of much public concern in Italy, and of Marco Mancassola’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Embracing the Other Italy.”10 Ferrante herself addresses this problem insofar as, by the fourth and final Neapolitan Novel, Elena’s grown-up daughters live outside of Italy: “They consider Italy a splendid corner of the planet, and at the same time, an insignificant and inconclusive province, livable only for a short vacation.”11

The snidely condescending faction may best be illustrated by Paolo di Paolo’s October 2014 La stampa article, which credits the success of Ferrante in the US to well-oiled plots, a solid narrative hand, plain language, and a touristic rendering of Naples.12 He attributes the praise offered to Ferrante by venerated Italian cultural critics like Goffredo Fofi, on the other hand, to her facelessness. Cristiano de Majo offers a somewhat more perceptive reflection on the topic by comparing the Neapolitan novels to Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty, which was derided—or worse, slept through—in Italy.13 Both works, de Majo notes, feature Neapolitan protagonists who have emigrated north and achieved success as writers. He asks whether the nostalgia for a lost Naples of childhood poverty might resonate not just with American descendants of Neapolitan emigrants, but with the kind of longing that guides touristic sensibilities. In a short “Central Park West” video for RAI (Italy’s national public broadcasting company), Antonio Monda proposes that the excitement about Ferrante coincides with a tendency in American universities to all but ignore 19th-century greats like Ugo Foscolo, Manzoni, and Giacomo Leopardi in favor of mystics and other women writers. Mirroring the dichotomy he laments, the video cuts from Monda, seated in front of a wall of bookcases and solemnly addressing the camera, to what appears to be softly lit stock footage of a young woman curled up on a cushioned bay window seat, sensuously turning the pages of a book.14

The conversation about her in Italy seems polarized into two camps, the self-flagellating and the snidely condescending.

A friend of mine, perhaps imagining such a scene of cloistered reading reverie, recently asked me over what became a contentious dinner, “But are the Neapolitan novels political? Or are they about women?” The a priori exclusion of women from the political, presupposed by my friend’s question, is often implicit in speculation about Ferrante’s identity. Some who dismiss her writing as plot-driven and sentimental seem to accept that she is a woman. Others, noting an epic sweep of historical and political significance, attribute the works to a man. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay engages directly with these positions, as Elena begins writing about the sociopolitical turmoil of the so-called Years of Lead and reflects on both her own insecurity in handling such material and her envy of male writers who seem to do so with an arrogant ease.

Academics tend to remain aloof from speculation about Ferrante’s identity; for these readers her work is most certainly that of an implied writer textually constructed as a woman.15 And I too might be happy to repeat that the author is dead, and the Befana’s gifts delivered, were there not so much evident sexism in the speculations about the gender of Ferrante, and were such sexism not also addressed explicitly in the novels.

I must also confess that, as a reader impassioned by “Ferrante fever,” I found it unbearable to imagine her as a man. And yet as an equally passionate reader of Judith Butler, I was unsettled by my emotional investment in essentializing gender. And so I set about trying to hedge my bets: to come to terms with the possibility that she might be a man or, as one rumor has it, a collaboration between the husband-and-wife founders of Edizioni E/O, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola, and an intimate circle of friends. This possibility holds a certain appeal insofar as it both presents a challenge to the “authorialism” identified by Benedetti and evokes another recent Italian literary phenomenon: the Bologna-based collaborative writing group Wu-Ming, founded in 2000. (When I first heard the collaborative-author theory of Ferrante, I figured it was a rumor started by members of Wu-Ming to bring attention to their own “Unidentified Narrative Objects” and “New Italian Epics.”) Despite the interest that collaborative authorship would thus hold, the idea still seemed somehow insulting to the reader: as though the novels were cooked up by focus groups bent on exploiting our narrative desire and producing escapist diversions. Like my resistance to the possibility of Ferrante being a man, my discomfort with the idea of collaborative authorship revealed some hypocrisy. Am I really so committed to the ideologies of individualism and artistic genius, despite all my Barthesian, Foucauldian, and Benedettian posturing? Why should a work by one author be any more authentic, sincere, or true than a collaboration?

These digressions, which I undertook in order to justify my interest in Ferrante’s identity and my emotional investment in her gender and number, have become superfluous in the last month. There was a great deal of excitement leading up to the publication of the Spring 2015 issue of the Paris Review, which features the first-ever in-person interview with the writer. Presumably, such an interview would have revealed that Ferrante is one individual, a woman. The importance of this interview, however, was somewhat diminished by the fact that the in-person interview was conducted by Ferri and Ozzola, the very editors rumored to be Ferrante, and by their daughter, Eva Ferri.

In Italy, as the deadline approached for nominations for the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Strega Prize, concerns about the possibility of a pseudonymous awardee escalated into front-page news and scathing polemic. Raffaella de Santis’s February 16 article in La repubblica, “Who’s Afraid of Elena Ferrante for the Strega?,” described and stoked the controversy. She reported that Sandro Veronesi, a past Strega winner and thus a member of the association of literary elite known as the Amici della domenica that forms the prize jury, threatened to resign if Ferrante was nominated, declaring: “If you decide not to exist, don’t participate in the most important literary competition in Italy!”16 As de Santis and many others have noted, Ferrante was nominated for a Strega in 1992 for Troubling Love, but her candidacy attracted little attention at the time because there was little chance of her winning. (Popular belief, supported by history, is that Strega recipients alternate—by design—between the nominees of the two largest publishing houses, Edizioni Mondadori and Einaudi.17)

On February 21, Roberto Saviano, Strega Prize–winning author of Gomorra, the enormously successful exposé of organized crime in Naples, wrote an open letter to Ferrante, published in La repubblica:

Dear Elena Ferrante, I write not as someone who knows you in person but as a reader, and I believe this is the kind of acquaintance you prefer. I have never been interested in uncovering who hides behind your name, because since I was young I have always had your pages available to me, and that was enough—and still is enough—for me to believe I know you, to know who you are: a person close and familiar to me.18

Saviano continues to make a case for her participation: “It would add fresh water to the long stagnant swamp” of the Italian literary establishment. Ferrante responded three days later with a letter in the same publication:

I am glad that you read one of my books and wish to make it the banner of a small cultural battle, but it’s useless to ask my permission. No reader writes to me for permission to use My Brilliant Friend to prop up a table with a broken leg. … I completely share your opinions about the Strega, which in my view is one of a great many tables in our country whose legs have been devoured by woodworms. … The use of my book will serve only to prop up an old worm-eaten table for another year, as we wait to see whether to restore it or to throw it away.19

Over the next week, at least two more letters from Ferrante—quickly revealed by Edizioni E/O to be fakes—appeared in Italian newspapers, as did a fake interview that made Ferrante a dialect-speaking, bearded old lady hitting on her young Neapolitan interviewer. Amid this cacophony, devoted readers chimed in on Twitter and beyond to obsequiously repeat the metaphor of the Befana, urging everyone to read the novels and to stop worrying about Ferrante’s identity.

My curiosity endured.

In response to de Santis’s article, published later on the same day, February 16, the gossip blog DagoSpia declared the debate about the possibility of Ferrante’s nomination for a Strega ridiculous, because “Even the stones know that Elena Ferrante is Anita Raja.”20

I wouldn’t always be so quick to believe the words of a disreputable gossip blog, but the more I read about Raja the more convinced I become that she is indeed Ferrante. Raja is among those long rumored to be Ferrante. (As is Raja’s husband, the Strega Prize–winning Neapolitan novelist Domenico Starnone.) But more importantly, she is the translator, for Edizioni E/O (which has published all of Ferrante’s novels), of the East German writer Christa Wolf. Raja translated Wolf’s Medea (1996), a novel that, like The Days of Abandonment, which it must have in some part inspired, sets the myth in modern times. Stefania Lucamante, a professor of Italian and comparative literature at the Catholic University of America, finds a critical precursor in Wolf’s Medea:

It is not until Christa Wolf’s version of the myth … that we see Medea’s torment suddenly appearing in the garb of an “everyday” life experience: being left by your beloved husband for another woman. Wolf speaks often of the usefulness of myths to represent the present in the process called in German Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “the process of getting over the past.”21

Another Wolf title translated by Raja is The Quest for Christa T (1968). Like My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the Neapolitan tetralogy, Wolf’s novel is the story of a woman who becomes a writer by piecing together the traces of a lost friend—one who seems sometimes to disintegrate into and become indistinguishable from the narrator herself. While My Brilliant Friend opens with Lila’s disappearance without a trace, The Quest for Christa T. begins with the following reflection: “Christa T. was timid. Mainly it was the fear that one might vanish without a trace, a frequent enough event in those days. She compulsively left traces, hasty and careless ones.”22 The premises may be reversed; the influence seems clear.

After Wolf’s death, in 2011, Raja wrote a short essay to commemorate her dear friend, inspiration, and mentor:

The assiduous study of the words of an author generates affinity, closeness. If the person writing is a great writer, translating becomes an experience that profoundly enriches she who translates. Her work of verbalization acted upon my poorer and more common work of welcoming into my language. Her work strengthened mine, leading me to paths I never would have thought of taking. To the point that I had the impression that the texts of Christa were expressing me, that I would have liked to write them just as they were written, that Christa wrote them thinking of me. But translating Christa Wolf I also—and above all—came to understand that the relationship between two languages ends up developing though the relationship between two people: and Christa, whom I met in 1984, revealed herself from the very first moment to be a model of humanity, closeness, concreteness, curiosity, attention, generosity. Always, right up to the end, when we heard from each other, she would first of all ask questions about children, family, health, work, about politics and vacations, about common and quotidian things, at length and with real attention, and then almost seamlessly we would be talking about books or problems of translation.23

The complex relationships between the narrator of The Quest for Christa T. and Christa T., and between Elena and Lila, are echoed in the relationship Raja describes between herself and Wolf. The Italian feminist Luisa Muraro—who has interviewed and influenced Ferrante—has developed a theory of affidamento, a practice of “putting faith in” or “entrusting” between women that would be the basis for a new symbolic order to counter patriarchy.24 The relationship Raja describes between herself and Wolf—one of apprenticeship and friendship—seems like an affidamento. But it is also a tradimento, for it is the relationship between translator and translated, betrayer and betrayed. This is the horrifying ambivalence of friendship, and of working with words.


This article was originally presented in slightly different form to the fellows of the New York Institute for the Humanities, Deutsches Haus at New York University, March 13, 2015.


Correction: May 7, 2015

In its originally published form, the article incorrectly characterized the narrator of Troubling Love as a translator rather than as a comic-strip artist. icon

  1. Elena Ferrante, “‘True Miracles Are Those Whose Makers Will Never Be Known’ (Letter to Her Publisher, 1991,” in Fragments: Elena Ferrante on Writing, Reading, and Anonymity, edited by Eva Ferri and translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2012), p. 1. The publication cited here is an abridged version of a collection of interviews and letters originally published in Italy as La frantumaglia (Edizioni E/O, 2003).
  2. Ibid., p. 2.
  3. In the essay “La frantumaglia” (not included in the abridged translation of the eponymous collection), Ferrante explains that the title, Amore molesto in the original, was inspired by a reading of the Italian translation of “Female Sexuality,” where Freud—or rather, his translator—describes the father, for the pre-Oedipal girl, as merely “a troublesome rival,” “un rivale molesto.” In La frantumaglia, p. 133.
  4. Storia della bambina perduta (Edizioni E/O, 2014), p. 437; my translation.
  5. In Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, translated from the French by Stephen Heath (Hill and Wang, 1977), p.148.
  6. The Empty Cage: Inquiry Into the Mysterious Disappearance of the Author, translated from the Italian by William J. Hartley (Cornell University Press, 2005), p. 57.
  7. “Art of Fiction No. 228,” interviewed by Sandro Ferri, Sandra Ozzola, and Eva Ferri, Paris Review, no. 212 (Spring 2015).
  8. “Wiggle, Wiggle,” London Review of Books, September 21, 2006.
  9. See James Wood, “Women on the Verge: The Fiction of Elena Ferrante,” New Yorker, January 21, 2013.
  10. “Embracing the Other Italy,” New York Times, March 10, 2015.
  11. Storia della bambina perduta, p. 435; my translation.
  12. “Il caso Ferrante, il romanzo italiano secondo il New Yorker,” La stampa, October 13, 2014.
  13. “La narrazione esotica italiana all’estero,” Rivista studio, January 21, 2015.
  14. “Central Park West e il caso di Elena Ferrante negli Stati Uniti,” RaiNews, January 30, 2015.
  15. Stiliana Milkova’s superb article “Mothers, Daughters, Dolls: On Disgust in Elena Ferrante’s La figlia oscura,” for example, begins: “Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of a contemporary Italian writer who has kept her identity a secret over the past twenty years,” in Italian Culture, vol. 31, no. 2 (September 2013). Milkova does not engage in any speculation about the identity of Ferrante, and the arguments set out in the article would remain unaffected by any revelation about the gender (and number) of the writer.
  16. “Chi ha paura di Elena Ferrante allo Strega?,” La repubblica, February 16, 2015; my translation.
  17. Einaudi, historically associated with the left and still generally considered the most prestigious publishing house in Italy, was acquired by the Berlusconi-controlled Arnoldo Mondadori group in 1994.
  18. Roberto Saviano, “Cara Ferrante, ti candido al premio Strega,” La repubblica, February 21, 2015; my translation.
  19. Elena Ferrante, “Accetto la candidatura allo Strega,” La repubblica, February 24, 2015; my translation.
  20. “Lo Strega di Pulcinella – Si può dare il premio a una scrittrice dall’identità misteriosa? Peccato che lo sanno anche i sassi che Elena Ferrante è Anita Raja, moglie di Starnone (che rosica mica poco),” DagoSpia, February 16, 2015.
  21. A Multitude of Women: The Challenges of the Contemporary Italian Novel (University of Toronto Press, 2008), p. 86.
  22. Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T., translated from the German by Christopher Middleton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p. 33.
  23. Anita Raja, commemoration of Christa Wolf, Goethe-Institut Italien, December 2011; my translation.
  24. An interview with Ferrante by Luisa Muraro and Marina Terragni, entitled “Il vapore erotico del corpo materno. Risposte alle domande di Marina Terragni e Luisa Muraro,” is included in a more recent, expanded edition of La frantumaglia (2007). In her doctoral dissertation, Italian Female Epistemologies beyond “The Scene of the Crime” (UC Berkeley, 2013), Leslie Elwell uses Muraro’s concept of affidamento to produce an incisive reading of Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and its relation to Sibilla Aleramo’s 1906 Una donna.