The Lost Translator by Michael F. Moore - Words Without Borders (2022)

It’s awards season at the movies, and accolades are being heaped on the film The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, about a middle-aged academic taking a vacation on a Greek island. The film is based on the eponymous novel by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, author of the wildly successful Neapolitan Quartet, which follows the lives of two friends over the course of nearly fifty years. So far, the film has racked up a number of prestigious awards and nominations, most recently Academy Award nominations for the two lead actresses, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, as well as a nod to Gyllenhaal for Best Adapted Screenplay, a category that shewon at the Venice International Film Festival. To which I would add “adapted from an (uncredited) translation.”

The original Italian novel, La figlia oscura (literally, the obscure or mysterious daughter), published in 2006, rehearses the themes that Ferrante explores more fully in the Quartet. Primary among them is the struggle against female bondage: the bonds of society, which consign women to narrow roles; the bonds of mother and daughter, each punishing the other with expectations and disappointments; and the bonds of friendship, which draw women together and drive them apart. A doll is a central motif in both, indicating the power and the fragility of these relationships.

Translated into English by Ann Goldstein in 2008, The Lost Daughter is a first-person narrative that moves between the present and the past. The narrator, Leda, originally from Naples, is a professor of English at a Florentine university. As the novel begins, she sits on a beach in southern Italy and observes the extended family that has suddenly erupted onto the scene. She is fascinated by a young mother and her daughter, Nina and Elena, and the way they cling to each other. In the same group she notices a heavily pregnant woman, Rosaria, who we later learn is the forty-two-year-old sister-in-law of Nina. Leda tells herself that Nina is beautiful while Rosaria is ugly, at the same time as she questions the class assumptions underlying these judgments. The scene prompts Leda to reflect on her own relationships with the women in her life. Her two daughters are creatures who were once wrapped around her, “despite the cutting of the umbilical cord.” One resembles her, the other doesn’t. Gianni, her ex-husband, “didn’t even have time to look at what had been copied from his body, at how the reproduction had turned out.” She remembers her mother, and how they fought. “The secret rage I harbored against myself I turned on her.” To carve out a life for herself as a successful academic, Leda has had to contend with the competing demands of being a daughter, a mother, and a wife.

In adapting the novel for the screen, Gyllenhaal made the wise choice to change the nationalities of the characters and have them speak English (in contrast to the ludicrous pidgin English used by the Italians in House of Gucci). The scene is shifted from southern Italy to a Greek island. Leda is now British, originally from Leeds, and a professor of Italian and comparative literature in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The raucous family on the beach is from the borough of Queens, in New York City, rather than Naples, a change that makes them a bit less menacing. In the novel, when the cabana boy warns Leda that they are “bad people,” the inference is clear: they’re mafiosi. Being a bad person from Queens doesn’t carry quite the same criminal connotations (full disclosure: I have resided in Queens for twenty years).

The movie does sanitize aspects of Ferrante’s story. In the novel, Leda is repelled by the bodies she sees on the beach. With the exception of Nina, and, I should add, of Leda herself, the people are overweight and sunburned. Rosaria is “ugly with pretension.” Nina’s husband is a stocky older man, “with a large belly, divided into two bulging halves of flesh by a deep scar that ran from the top of his bathing suit to the arc of his ribs.” The members of the extended family are “heavy men with worn faces, ostentatiously wealthy women, obese children.” These features are unrecognizable in the actors playing these characters. The gorgeous Dagmara Dominczk plays the sister-in-law, now called Callie. Nina’s husband is a young man with the tanned, muscular build of a surfer. Leda, who in the novel takes pride in her slim, youthful appearance, is, by contrast, one of the few less trimcharacters, in natural harmony with her age.

The movie simplifies the theme at the heart of the story: Leda’s abandonment of her children for three years when they were young. In the novel Nina insists that Leda explain why. She initially answers, “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.” She adds that she felt good without them, as if the pieces of herself were coming together after being shattered. But after three years she returned, not for love of her daughters but for love of herself. “And after your return?” Nina asks. “I was resigned to living very little for myself and a great deal for the two children: gradually I succeeded.” The same scene is rendered, in the movie, through twolines of dialogue: “I went back ’cause I missed them. I’m a very selfish person.”

The shift of the language and nationality of the characters, and of the location, is not entirely smooth. The Greek language is neither heard nor seen—not even a menu or a bottle of ouzo—except for snatches of dialogue from the local ruffians. When Callie first meets Leda, she asks if she’s from Queens, an assumption no Queens native would make, considering Olivia Colman’s unmistakably British accent. In a later scene, when Leda meets a couple of hikers (one of whom is played, in a clever twist, by Alba Rohrwacher, the narrator in the HBO adaption of My Brilliant Friend), we learn that she has studied translation, and has translated poems by Yeats and Auden into Italian.

This last detail is one of the various references the film makes to translation, pointing self-consciously to its own status as a “translation” of a novel. Leda had been struggling in the trenches of academia, lagging behind her more successful husband, until she attended a conference in England. The theme of the conference, in the novel, is E. M. Forster; in the film, Auden, thus shifting from prose to poetry. There she is shocked to hear herself praised, from the podium, by the most prestigious scholar at the conference, Professor Hardy. The film goes into more depth about his paper than the novel does. He claims that Leda’s work—she had only published one article until then—had anticipated the pioneering theories of Paul Ricoeur, who used the term “linguistic hospitality” to epitomize the ideal mediation between host and guest languages in translation. After delivering his paper, Hardy flirts with Leda, and they make sweet talk with each other by trading lines from her Italian translation of Auden’s poem “The Crisis” (written, incidentally, when Germany invaded Poland, at the outbreak of the Second World War).

The director, Maggie Gyllenhaal, has also been styled as a translator for her work in bringing the novel to the screen. In a promotional interview with the New York Times, she was asked:

The theme of translation is obviously important to the characters. Leda translates Italian literature, but also, you’re translating Ferrante. What does the role of translator mean to you?

There’s this little section inRachel Cusk’s book Kudos, which I’ve pulled up a few times because I’ve been thinking about adaptation in general. Here is the quote: “I translated it carefully and with great caution as if it were something fragile that I might mistakenly break or kill.” I loved that. (December 29, 2021)

It is all the more disturbing, then, that neither Gyllenhaal in her interviews nor the film’s end credits or press kit makes any mention of the translator whose work was the basis for the script: Ann Goldstein. Goldstein has translated all of Ferrante’s work that is available in English, starting with The Days of Abandonment. The combined circumstances of Ferrante’s anonymity and the success of the Neapolitan Quartet have made Goldstein one of the best-known translators in America today. Her name appears on the title page, though not the cover, of all the Ferrante books, and she has been the subject of numerous feature articles in leading newspapers. Some even attribute Ferrante’s success in the English-speakingworld to Goldstein’s assured, elegant translations. She is hardly an “obscure” or invisible translator. Yet in the seven minutes of end credits for The Lost Daughter, including the names of caterers, drivers, and the on-set medic, the filmmakers found no room to credit the individual whose translation made the enterprise possible. There is, however, prominent mention of the publisher of the novel, Europa Editions, the holder of the copyright to the translation.

Europa has, in fact, made it a policy to deny copyright to translators, a practice that effectively denies the creative nature of a translator’s work. With very few exceptions, Europa also keeps the translator’s name off the cover. While there has long been a campaign to put the translator’s name on the cover of a translated book, recently revived by the Society of Authors through an open letter and the hashtag #TranslatorsOnTheCover, a cover credit does not necessarily guarantee a translator’s copyright and ownership of his or her work. Nor does copyright automatically grant the translator the right to license, and receive an income from, the use of his or her translation for derivative works, such as film adaptations.

To better understand the issues underlying this case, I spoke with Alex Zucker, who together with Jessica Cohen, Julia Sanches, and Umair Kazi, drafted the Literary Translation Model Contract published by the Authors Guild. He pointed out that “a work of literary translation is as originalas any other creative workunder copyright law.” As the commentary to the model contract states: “Translations are not simply renderings of a work in a new language; they are, legally speaking, new works that incorporate some elements or the entirety of pre-existing works while adding new copyrightable authorship to that work, entitled to copyright protection to the extent of their original characteristics.”

The licensing of film rights is another matter. While copyright would requireacknowledgment of the translator in an eventual film adaptation, it does not ensure that a royalty or licensing fee is provided to the translator. Such a matter would have to be negotiated separately as a subsidiary right, which is likewise discussed in the commentary to the model contract: “We recommend that, whenever possible, translators retain the right to license the translation, in whole or in part, for use in media other than physical or electronic books—for example, radio, TV, film, stage, quotation, or subtitling—because if the translation sells well, these could turn out to be more valuable than you anticipate at the time you negotiate your translation contract.”

In response to the New York Times article cited above, former New Yorker staffer Mary Norris wrote a letter to the editor objecting to the movie’s failure to acknowledge Goldstein’s translation, adding, “Some of the most memorable lines in the film were taken verbatim from the English translation” (February 23, 2020). Maggie Gyllenhaal reposted the letter on Instagram, saying, “This is exactly right. Let this be the first of many thank you’s to the brilliant#AnnGoldstein (English translator of#thelostdaughter), without whom none of this would be happening.”It was gratifying to seeMaggie Gyllenhaal acknowledge Ann Goldstein in her acceptance speech for the IndependentSpirit Award for Best Screenplay to compensate in partfor this lapse.

As streaming services such as Netflix extend their business worldwide, they are looking increasingly to translated literature to diversify their content. While this should mean good business for translators, it can also be demoralizing. In the case of The Lost Daughter, the translator has been denied both a credit and an income stream from the fruits of her labor.

© 2022 by Michael F. Moore. All rights reserved.

Read a review of Elena Ferrante’s
The Lost Daughter here

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