'Good on Paper' Asks, Is Fidelity Possible?

Photo by © Bennett Beckenstein from Rachel

Rachel Cantor follows A Highly Unlikely Scenario with a literary mystery about the difficulties of translating art into life and life into art.

Good on Paper

Publisher: Melville House
Length: 320 pages
Author: Rachel Cantor
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-01

Today, translated books by international authors are read in their millions, but the individuals who actually perform the tireless work of reproducing a text's meaning in an entirely different language seldom enjoy the attention they deserve. Yes, the fruits of their labor may be praised to the hilt by critics and readers alike, but almost invariably it's the authors they translate who receive this praise, while their efforts are passed over in a silence.

Given how pivotal translation is to the global publishing industry, it's probably little wonder that their existence is swept under the carpet, since to highlight the importance of their job would risk highlighting its fraught and problematic nature. It would be tantamount to admitting that translation presents inherent difficulties and dangers, and that the translated versions which a Penguin or Faber disseminate around the world aren't quite the one-to-one correspondences these publishing houses would have us believe.

However, if the industry itself is a little reticent when it comes to acknowledging the struggle translators often face in making Umberto Eco or Orhan Pamuk readable for an English-speaking audience, the novelists operating within this industry are somewhat less so. One such author is Rachel Cantor, who emerged in 2014 with A Highly Unlikely Scenario, a surreal debut about Pythagorean pizza companies, customer-support time travel, and the indecipherable Voynich manuscript.

While she's left behind surrealism and indecipherability for her sophomore effort, she's now turned her attention to untranslatability. This isn't just the untranslatability you might encounter when trying to convert a work of literature from one language to another, but also the untranslatability you might encounter when trying to convert literature into life, or vice versa.

Her literary melodrama, Good on Paper, revolves around Shira Greene, a single-mother translator who's received the assignment of a lifetime. This is an assignment which not only tasks her with translating her favorite Italian author into English, but also promises to translate her dreams and aspirations into reality. Of course, as the smart-yet-sentimental novel soon reveals, completing either of these translations proves to be much more difficult than both would seem 'on paper’.

In fact, Shira had already proven the difficulty of realizing the beauty of literature prior to the novel's opening in the Manhattan of 1999. Working as a 44-year-old temp for various restaurants, museums, doll importers and prosthetic-leg charities, she now finds herself as a college dropout-cum-single mother who once harbored ambitions of becoming a renowned translator and writer. These had initially centered themselves around Dante, who in his Vita Nuova had represented her "belief in a life made new by love". However, in the accumulating face of personal injuries and hardships -- abandonment by her mother at the age of seven, a failed marriage, and constant betrayal at the hands of her on-off lover, "T." -- she loses her faith in Dante and in the possibility of a 'new life' made in the image of classical literature, with its dependable structures and meanings:

I hated Dante then -- Dante and his stupid Vita Nuova! The libello, his libelous little book, was nothing more than a reminder that I’d been abandoned not just by the love of my young life, but by every hope I’d had that the world was as Dante described -- ordered, designed to manifest a greater Love.

She therefore gravitates towards the Nobel Prize-winning "Romei", an Italian poet of Romanian descent whose adopted nom de plume translates as "pilgrim", thereby resonating with her sense of being adrift and unsettled. In his writings "about the impossibility of New Life" she encounters solace and comfort, as well as validation for her hardening belief that "We never change."

Hence, when she receives news from her best friend and housemate, Ahmad, that this beloved Romei has just sent her a fax asking her to translate his latest work, her initial scepticism understandably gives way to the excitement of being able to collaborate with her literary idol. In fact, she even begins to envision a new beginning for herself, in which "[e]veryone would be proud!" and she'd be "the envy of grad students everywhere!"

As her checkered past already anticipates, things don't quite pan out this way. For one, Good on Paper draws much of its tension and intrigue from the mystery surrounding Romei and his reasons for asking the amateur Shira -- of all the well-established literary translators worldwide -- for help with his opus, tellingly assigned the provisional title of Vita Quasi-Nuova. Throughout the book, Shira periodically undermines her rediscovered hope for the future by posing herself questions regarding his motives and methods, questions like "Why does he want to publish the translation before the original?" and"Is Romei testing me?"

Her answers to these riddles always come up short, as if to underscore her inability to ever know enough about her favorite author (or any other) to sufficiently decipher his writing. Worse still, her attempts to penetrate Romei and his enigma are constantly waylaid by her complicated personal life, which includes a demanding seven-year-old daughter named Andrea and a will-they-won't-they Jewish friend by the name of Benny.

Yet even with these complications, Good on Paper depicts Shira's job as an almost impossible one mostly insofar as it delves into the almost impossible nature of translation itself. As she goes about rendering the (always faxed) pages of Romei's work into English, she repeatedly confronts "false friends, syllepses, paronomasia, [and] the goddamned pantoum", all poetic and rhetorical devices that make it fiendishly hard for anyone to move from one language to another and still retain the bulk of the original sense. With these hurdles, she increasingly frets about her ability to meet the unreasonably and inexplicably tight deadlines Romei is foisting on her. She despairs of "the futility of translation" and her involvement with "the ultimate untranslatable work", and in parallel with her struggles to tame such a work, her already frayed life begins to unravel even further.

It's this parallelism that makes Good on Paper interesting. The novel exploits the arduous process of translation as a metaphor for life itself. Just as Shira must be faithful to the original text of Vita Quasi-Nuova when she translates it, so too must she be 'faithful' to her daughter and to Ahmad, her daughter's gay adopted-father. She affirms the importance of "trying to imagine the other’s experience", of 'translating' them by empathizing with them and "putting ourselves in their shoes". At one early point in the novel, she and rabbi/bookstore owner Benny encapsulate this concern when they exchange the following words:

You think fidelity is possible? he asked.

In a translator or a man? I said before I realized what I was saying.

Either, he replied. Both.

By stressing the centrality of mutual sympathy and understanding like this, Cantor proposes that translation isn't simply an arcane activity conducted by a handful of nerdy specialists, but something quite fundamental to the human experience. She reminds us that, even within the same language, people translate each other all the time, and that it's "across the abyss" of such translations -- in the gaps of misunderstanding and incomprehension that "cannot be crossed" -- that life happens.

This insight provides the novel with arguably its greatest strength, yet unfortunately it's Cantor's attempt to translate living, breathing people into fictitious characters that arguably provides it with its weakness. While Shira herself is a familiar down-and-out figure in whom many will see something of themselves, it often appears as though the book is so eager to frame itself as an 'authentic' portrayal of 'real' people that it can't help but overload them with quirks. Shira's daughter is a particularly egregious recipient of these, what with her tendency to say "Topeka!" instead of "Eureka!", her possession of a "guilt quilt" ("a polyester extravaganza sewn by Ahmad’s ex out of the disco shirts of a lover, long dead of AIDS"), her imaginary friend called "Ovidio", and her fondness for referring to Shira as "Mambo".

In other words, Cantor occasionally goes a mite too far in simplistically overstating her uniqueness and peculiarity, as she does with the vegan Benny and the Nobel-nominated Ahmad, who often flies Andi "out of the room like a 320 Airbus". The result of this slightly heavy-handed approach is that, rather than coming across as believable and original, these three characters sometimes strike the reader as unbelievable and unoriginal.

In some ways this is entirely appropriate, at least when it comes to the novel's mission to underscore the hazards of translation, be this from language to language, from literature to life, or from life to literature. Fortunately, even with its pessimistic openings, the narrative ultimately develops in such a way as to suggest that the gap between literature and life can just about be bridged, albeit imperfectly.

Although it would spoil the ending to be explicit, it can be hinted that Shira's endeavor to translate the inscrutable Romei's handiwork returns her to her past, and that it's by reentering her past that she manages, finally, to scrape one foot into her future. Maybe it's not exactly the illustrious future she'd hoped for, but it still nonetheless qualifies as a 'new life,' one that can, in its own precarious way, be translated from the page to the strange world beyond it.




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