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The translator has often been a curious figure in literature; by the very nature of her work, a job well done renders her invisible. Shadowy, misunderstood, frustrated, and watchful–no wonder translators make such fitting protagonists in two new novels: Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, and Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear.

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In Novey’s fast-paced tale, a translator’s author, famous in her native Brazil, has gone missing. The translator embarks on a wild goose chase to find the writer and an action-adventure plot involving a bloodthirsty loan shark ensues. In the meantime, the translator becomes intimately entangled with the writer’s family, particularly the writer’s seductive son.

In Cantor’s playful, brainy romp, translation is similarly linked with sex: “Translation requires, and generates, a rare kind of intimacy. Like sex done right, I’ve always thought.” Cantor’s protagonist is Shira Greene, a translator who has been chosen to translate a poet’s work about falling in love with a translator. (Whew!) Shira becomes fixated on the idea that the work features so much bilingual linguistic play that it’s actually untranslatable, or perhaps—can it be?—filled with secret messages just for her.

There is something inherently poetic about the concept of translation as a profession, something seductive about the idea of someone who has access to multiple layers of meaning. Perhaps this explains why there are at least three novels in print today titled The Translator, and translators play key roles in books like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Bad Girl. The experimental writer Mary Caponegro also explores the translator as character in her story for Conjunctions, called, what else, “The Translator.”

“Words are slippery,” the story begins, and already we are on our guard; as with Novey’s and Cantor’s novels, things are not as they seem. Caponegro writes, “Ironically enough, a translator, who strives so valiantly to be, as the expression goes, part of the solution, may inadvertently compound the problem.” She invokes the same saying that tortures Cantor’s fictional translator: “traduttore traditore, the translator is a traitor!” The Caponegro story is an intellectual roller-coaster, eventually focusing on the narrator’s muse, an American named Liza. The narrator’s obsession will remind readers of Dante and his Beatrice, a fixation much chewed over in Cantor’s novel as well.

The writers discussed here use translators as means to explore what language is and what it means to communicate. They ask if it’s ever really possible to convey one’s truth to another. Novey’s translator finds carnal communication to be more efficient than the written word. Cantor’s translator discovers that the work she is meant to interpret may only makes sense to a single reader. Caponegro’s translator (an Italian) finds that his (American) muse sends him postcards even though they live in the same city, trying to bridge the languages dividing them. These works of fiction all seem to ask, in their very different ways: can we ever really communicate with language alone?

And just imagine the job ahead of the translators in charge of the foreign editions.


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Conjunctions, No. 50, Fifty Contemporary Writers (2008), pp. 403-414