Elena Ferrante: ‘We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us’
In a rare interview, the author answers questions from booksellers and translators around the world, about everything from the coronavirus to writing as therapy
Neapolitan dialect plays an important role in your novels. Could one say that you are doing a work of translation, hearing the voices of these characters in dialect and turning them into Italian? Marcello Lino, translator, Brazil
Of course, but it’s a vexed, I would say unhappy, translation. To explain this I have to talk about the nature of the narrators I’ve constructed up to now. In my books, the narrator is the “voice” of a woman with Neapolitan origins, who knows dialect well, who is well educated, who has lived far from Naples for a long time, and who has serious reasons for hearing Neapolitan as the language of violence and obscenity. I’ve put “voice” in quotation marks here because it’s not at all about voice but about writing. Delia, Olga, Leda, Elena, explicitly or implicitly, are writing their story and in doing so resort to an Italian that is a sort of linguistic barrier against the city they come from. To varying degrees, they have fabricated for themselves – let’s say – a language of flight, of emancipation, of growth, and have done it against the dialect-speaking environment that formed them and tormented them during childhood and adolescence. But their Italian is fragile. Dialect instead is emotionally robust and at moments of crisis imposes itself, moves into the standard language, emerges in all its harshness. In other words, when, in my books, Italian succumbs and takes on dialectal cadences, it’s a sign that, in the language as well, past and present are getting anxiously, painfully confused. I don’t, in general, mime dialect: I let it be felt as the possible eruption of a geyser.
Unlike Lila and Lenù, who struggle for decades to find freedom, Giovanna, the protagonist of your latest novel, emancipates herself quite quickly. Is she a special case or is it a generational change? Király Kinga Júlia, translator, Hungary
Giovanna is very far from Lila and Lenù. She has had a good secular, super-democratic education. Her parents, both teachers, expect their daughter to become a very cultivated, respected woman who is free and independent. But a small event jams the machine designed for her, and she starts to see herself as the damaged product of a duplicitous milieu. So she desperately begins to cut her upbringing out of herself, as if she wanted to be reduced to the plain truth of her own living body. Lenù and Lila also try to tear the neighbourhood out of themselves, but while they have to laboriously fabricate the tools to help them break free of real and figurative poverty, Giovanna finds those tools at home, ready to be used against the very world that has provided them. She is already armed for her revolt, so it’s quick and resolute. But to throw into disorder one’s cultivated “I” is a dangerous undertaking. You can’t change your form for one that seems truer without the risk of not finding yourself anymore.