For the Love of Those Not Loved: On Translation, Forgiveness, and the Possibility of New Life in Rachel Cantor’s “Good on Paper”


Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita, Henry Holiday, 1883

by Menachem Feuer

Good on Paper,
by Rachel Cantor
New York: Melville House, 299 pp.

I didn’t love those who could love me, I loved the candle….I here and I there, I companioned perhaps – now! – by the love of those not loved, I on the way to myself, up here.

—Paul Celan, “Conversation in the Mountains”

Translation (as the root of the word – translatio – “carrying over”) suggests migration: the word moves from one space to another. When it crosses the shore (from one language to another), however, it leaves some things behind. The word, like a migrant, can’t take everything with it to the other side. One wonders if, once it crosses, the word can ever go back. In its pilgrimage to the other side of the river (so to speak), does it – like an immigrant to a new country – take on a new life and speak a new language? Is this new life a form of salvation? Can a new word – like a new land – renew life or create a new life? What hope can translation offer to the literary migrant? Is the migrant a pilgrim to another land (language) or a refuge for those who are fleeing death and suffering?

Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay, “The Task of the Translator,” thinks of translation in terms of life and what he calls “afterlife.” Both of these terms, as Benjamin uses them, draw on a register that is both secular and religious:

Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with the phenomenon of life without being of importance to it, translation issues from the original – not so much as from its life as from its afterlife. (71)

Benjamin explains the afterlife of translation in terms of temporal belatedness. The translator always comes to the text (as we come to life)…too late (in time): “For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their continued life” (71).

While Benjamin warns that “the idea of life and afterlife should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity”(Illuminations, 71), the fact of the matter is that the life and afterlife of translation are already metaphorical. The metaphorical nature of translation can be found not so much in its spatial displacement as in its temporal predicament. Not only the translation but also the translator comes too late. And when something comes too late, its migration to another place may not be transformative. The life offered by translation may be different but it is not new. Translation is not life; it is an afterlife. And this afterlife is not in heaven so much as on earth. It is a “continued life” – not a new life. Nonetheless, translation – like the notion of salvation in religion – still promises a new life in another form. Was Benjamin wrong? Can a translation possibly be transformative or does it only look good on paper?

Rachel Cantor, in her novel, Good on Paper engages the question and the metaphor of translation on many levels that breach not only language but also personhood. She uses translation to address the question of whether or not it is possible – when one is the middle and in the midst of life – to change one’s life by becoming a successful translator. After a life of failure, loss, and disappointment, can a choice of words or a single, personal, decision change a life?

Literature, like religion, gives the reader this possibility. But how, after all, can words bring one, so to speak, to the other shore? Does the passing of time win out over the “new life” promised by aesthetics? Will one, as the 19th century French poet still say, remain a “hypocrite reader” if one believes that one will be different by virtue of reading a poem? Baudelaire’s poetry, to be sure, is a reminder that no one can escape time, death, and suffering. With this in mind, one can say that migration may offer a change of place but it cannot alter time.

Walter Benjamin, whose seminal essay on translation has influenced many translators and graduate students over the years, had mixed emotions about the transformational capacity of language, translation, and interpretation. According to Richard Wolin, Benjamin created an “aesthetic of redemption.” Benjamin believed that reading, interpreting, or translating literature has the potential of changing life. However, in his real life, literature offered no salvation.

Near the end of his life, Benjamin told Gershom Scholem (in a letter) that Kafka – who Benjamin and Scholem saw as a kind of literary prophet – had only one certainty; namely, that only “a fool can help.” The question, however, he averred, is whether a fool can “do humanity any good.” In this passage, Benjamin is speaking of himself when he speaks of Kafka. He is questioning his own belief in literature. He sees himself as a fool for his belief that literature or translation can be redemptive. When he writes these words to Scholem, he was in fear and desperation. He was in flight from Hitler and Nazi Germany and he knew that it wouldn’t be long before Europe would undergo an unimaginable disaster. Nonetheless, all he had left in this dark moment was his hope that only a fool can help.

The irony of this passage is that it isn’t language that helps; it’s the foolish reader. Her belief can help someone else, somehow. Here life and afterlife are at odds with each other. The life of the fool overshadows the afterlife of translation (and literature) because, as Benjamin realizes, it is the person and not the text that can help in a time of need. But we need to take this reflection to another level and ask, with deeper urgency: who is the fool that Benjamin is talking about? Is the fool a character or a person who believes in the transformative power of literature? Or is it the case that the fool is someone who believes in the possibility of reaching humanity?

This query into what helps (the text or the fool), which Benjamin had near the end of his life, is developed and given literary form in Rachel Cantor’s novel. Good on Paper engages the question of whether – at a certain point in one’s life – a person can still take the possibility of new life seriously. The irony is that this situation is based on making a translation that has the potential of bringing one a new life. However, as we learn from the novel, it is not the text or one’s choice that is decisive so much as the other. The possibility of new life depends on whether or not I (and not the word) can migrate to the “other” shore. What Cantor adds to Benjamin’s reflection is the insight that a fool is someone who believes that winning the forgiveness and love of others – and not looking “good on paper” – offers the only possibility for salvation and new life. Only forgiveness can reverse time. And only a fool who believes in its power can help another person to migrate – temporally and existentially – from one kind of life to another. Perhaps this – and not the possibility of literary salvation – is the possibility of new life that Rachel Cantor’s novel puts forth for its readers. Perhaps this can prompt a person to change her life.

Temp Jobs – The Middle of Life – Before the End of the 20th Century

The main character of Good on Paper is Shira Greene. She is a single mom who – along with her daughter – is living with a gay Indian man named Ahmad. He has, as a result of their long standing friendship and the fact that he has a stable job, agreed to house Shira and her daughter Andi. Ahmad has, in many ways, become a surrogate father to her daughter (who, throughout the novel, is shown to be more interested in Ahmad than her own mother – perhaps because her mother is too stuck to me a mother of her child). Shira is, as it were, caught in the middle of too many things and this is the difficult backdrop for the possibility of a new life. She is, like many of Kafka’s characters (and Kafka himself), stuck.

Shira’s first name (song) and last name (green) are combination of Hebrew and English and it suggests that she – like her name – a Green Song (the song of New Life, so to speak). When we first meet Shira, she, like Dante (whose work, Vita NuovaNew Life – was the basis of her graduate work in translation), is in the middle of her life. There is nothing new about her life. It is not, by any means, extraordinary. And it seems as if she has no interest in changing it.

Shira is a middle aged woman who is working a temp job, has not achieved her dreams as a famous translator, and is living on the cusp of 2000. As a result of the Y2K scare, there was a deep-seated fear of a possible technological and economic apocalypse. In the face of this possibility, the reader wonders if Shira will change her life and sing a different tune. But, as it turns out, this change doesn’t seem possible. At the outset of the novel, Shira seems stuck in a job and a life she doesn’t like:

I was hiding in the supply closet, but Durlene didn’t need to know that.

You need to airlift me out of here, I said.

You need to stick it out, Shira. I can’t keep placing you if you keep quitting jobs.

I never managed to stick. I couldn’t look at the walls of the schlock gallery, I couldn’t bear the boss who kept telling me to smile or the funny smell in the church-office lunch room. (3)

After seeing her desperate predicament at work, the reader sees Shira’s sense of exhaustion and stuckness at home. She can’t seem to handle her daughter and can’t be a mother. She is down on herself: “Damn it, I thought. Thirty –five years gone and you still do this to me? I looked around for my mom-bag, where I keep the MOM! Handkerchief Andi had embroidered, but couldn’t find it. I settled for my sleeve”(7).

In the midst of her parenting crisis, the reader learns that someone named Romei is trying to contact her – via telegram – to translate his work. He is an Italian Nobel Prize winner. She can’t believe he wants to have her translate her work because she thinks of herself – because of all her failures in life and her weariness – as a total loser. She thinks his proposition is a joke:

Romei? As in the poet, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the only constellation in my sky for one sad moment in the eighties? Had Ahmad not said what he’d said, I’d have assumed the joke was his….The joke wasn’t Ahmad’s, but I knew any number of translators, some of them exes, who were capable of such high humor. I crumpled the telegram and threw like a fastball toward the kitchen. (8)

Romei continues trying to reach her. And when he sends a “delivery guy” over with a “fax machine” in his hands to deliver his message to Shira, the possibility slowly starts become more real. Even so, she still can’t believe that she would be asked to do this job:

I was, nominally, a member (or the “Translators of Note”), though largely of sufferance: I still went to meetings and organized our chapter’s annual Bloomsday pub hop, but my translation oeuvre was not substantial. It consisted of what I’d managed to finish of Dante’s Vita Nuova before I dropped out of grad school, plus a slim volume of stories by a writer, who, like me, was said never to have reached her potential, and a few feuilletons – always the lesser-know works of lesser known writers. (10)

After berating herself in this matter and imagining that this could simply not be true, she sends a Fax to Romei telling him to go away. Even so, the seeds of hope are planted and she starts wondering if it is possible for her life to change. (In the backdrop is the thought that this job as translator would translate into a new life.):

Metamorphosis was overrated, I thought. Look at me: forty-four, and the thought of my mother (who she hadn’t seen for years) turned me into a weeping seven-year-old. We don’t change. We never change. If some deus ex machine turned me into a tree, I’d still be a tree on the verge of being a seven year old. (11)

But she recalls that her father told her something else: “There’s always a door number two. There’s always another choice to be made. And that choice can change everything”(11). Shira is not so sure about her father’s belief:

He never made that choice, he never changed. We don’t change, but our lives do, sometimes. That would be enough, I thought – it would be a start, anyway. Because nothing about my life was as it was supposed to be. I’d veered off-track, as Ahmad was quick to point out. (12)

She tells herself that she “doesn’t need to be famous” and that “I don’t even have a future!” In many ways, Shira refuses to change. Shira doesn’t want to sing a new tune. However, in the midst of this, Romei breaks through. He seems to call, fax, or telegraph her in these moments when she is in utter disarray and despondence. The other, so to speak, breaks through Shira’s solitude and self-imposed exile.

We learn that Romei found out about her through Benny – a Jewish, Rabbinical friend of hers who runs a bookstore and is the editor of a journal called Gilgul (reincarnation, in Hebrew). Apparently, Romei looked for her, by way of Benny, because he had come across an essay she wrote on the post-Holocaust poet, Paul Celan.

Celan’s poetry – and the fact that he is linked to a kind of Jewishness, the question of translation, and the relation to the other (which he is obsessed with in his poetry) – becomes a counterpoint to the work of Dante. It also suggests that there are two ways for Shira to relate to poetics: one, which is more native to her, since it is Jewish and historical (post-Holocaust) and the other which is less familiar to her (Dante), because it speaks to the other rather than the self. She is less a pilgrim who returns to Rome (in a Christian sense) than a Jew who returns to the other and to God (the notion of Teshuva).

The question of return is framed, in this novel, in terms of the question of translation. A line from Paul Celan’s poem serves to announce this motif and also a difference between herself and Romei . It takes note of two possibilities: on the possibility of translation and the possibility that one can ever go outside of oneself (and toward the other) in art:

“Where Celan had written, When only nothingness stood between us, we found our way, all the way, to each other, Romei instead would write, There was only nothingness. Not just the impossibility of meeting, but the impossibility of there being an Other there to meet” (32).

In other words, Romei has more in common with Dante because he doesn’t believe in the possibility of leaving the text or meeting the other through translation. Every translation is really about me, not the other. Fidelity is to the self, not the other. Shira, it seems, disagrees with this. To be sure, the contrast between translating for oneself and translating for the other – the possibility that one can – is central to the novel’s main tension. The irony is that even though Shira thinks of this possibility and this difference, Shira can’t see the other when she is right in front of her face. And this may have to do with the possibility that Shira has, in many ways, given up not just on herself but also on the other person. And this is not just a personal issue. It also falls under the metaphor of translation. Her “new life” depends on how she responds or whether she can respond to the other rather than get stuck in herself and her own failures.

Translation, Memory, and Cynicism

While Shira is putting Andi to bed, Romei calls. This interruption is not by any means incidental. To understand the novel, the reader needs to see it as posing the question of translation and life. To be sure, Shira passes between two worlds which can’t be translated into each other (her home life and her “new” life as Romei’s translator). While she is speaking to Romei about translation, she thinks of what she can do with the money she will earn…for her daughter: “College fund, braces, Barbie Dream Palace.”(48)

Does she really care about translation any more? Or was it something she only cared about when she was a younger graduate student? Perhaps she has become so cynical that even the fact that she is translating for a Nobel Prize winner is not enough of an incentive for doing a great job.

Romei catches on to this. And although his English is off, he asks a question that puts her in the corner: “Bah! Romei said. I am caring nothing for this! What is making you feel, this book?”

This question is really two or it may be rhetorical. What is making you feel? Is it your life or this book? It can’t be the book. It must be your life.

After he states this, she sees her daughter: “Andi was holding a dress up to her front; a frilly one she knew she hated”(48).

In the following line, Shira (belatedly) returns to the question: “Feel? I asked stupidly. I don’t feel anything when I translate.”

He responds, again in disbelief: “This I think is not true. I think you are not liking this work”(48)

What I like about Romei is that – despite his seeming belief that we are solipsistic creatures – he is more interested in her life and engaging with her in a real way and less interested in her translating…before she can translate. He wants her to agree that they will both tell each other the truth (“full disclosure”). And this is when the irony comes out. What she says on paper is different from what she feels or believes.

“You do not like. I know this.”

Okay. You’re right. I don’t like Vita Nuova. Dante says his book is about love, but as far as I’m concerned, he knows nothing about love! He never gets close to Beatrice! He stares at her, he worships her, when he’s very lucky, she says hello. He’s in love with an idea, not a person! Love is something he experiences only in his imagination. (48)

Romei responds, “You think love is not something we experience in the imagination?”(49).

The way this garbled English comes across is fascinating because every question is direct and has the affect of astonishment or even insult.

And her response – which apparently isn’t a response to the question – hits at the theme of the novel, directly:

You know what this reminds me of? I said, ignoring the question. It reminds me of poets who translate other poets, not because they are interested in the original, but because they want to turn into something that looks like them. Dante says his world revolves around Beatrice, but in fact, it revolves around him – his longing, his words, his precious emotions. You can’t be faithful if you think only of yourself. (49)

The next sentence suggests the difference between being faithful to translation and faithful to another person. Is it possible to be faithful to a text let alone a person?

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. (49)

While she is mauling this over, there is another line about Andi playing in front of her while she talks on the phone: “Andi was making a show now of picking up her good school dresses one by one with her two fingers and letting them drop, like smelly garbage, into the give-away pile” (49).

This relationship, I think, is the answer to his question. Fidelity to one’s children is not possible; it’s necessary. The fidelity of a parent to a child is perhaps more meaningful and possible than erotic fidelity, on the one hand, and fidelity to a text, on the other.

Although this reality is obvious to the reader, it doesn’t seem to be the case with Shira. She returns to the theme of translation and fidelity:

You mean absolute fidelity? I asked, as I sat on the loveseat. Pure translation, pure unwaveringly love? Of course not. There’s always a rupture, always an abandonment. The translated one is always betrayed. (49)

In these lines, she is also speaking in an autobiographical sense. Although it looks “good on paper,” she, the translator, is ruptured and betrayed. There is something of her that is not translated. Perhaps, in this conversation, it is her daughter?

Shira turns to art and speaks of how Dante cared more for art than love and in this…he failed and lied to his readers:

I think he cares more about his Beatrice poems that he does about Beatrice. He cares more about art, not love. Vita Nuova is not romance, it’s a manifesto explaining Dante’s shift from lyric to narrative. (49)

He asks her, straight up, “And the new life, Miss Greene? What are you thinking? What is this?”(50). This question hits on many levels. Do you want a new life? Is Dante lying to us about a new life? Is his poetry – despite the fact that it is a lie – not life?

Once again, Andi, full of life, interrupts this mediation on fiction as life: “Andi had arrived in the study and was doing jumping jacks in front of the loveseat”(50). But, strangely enough, Shira can’t see this. She thinks of the question and imagines a new life as a “successful” translator: “The new life? I asked, trying not to laugh. Grad students everywhere, footnote on the apex of the ridge of the postmodern cannon”(50).

But is this a fantasy?

Building on this thread of language, Shira gets academic: “It’s not clear what Dante means by new life, is it? I said. As you know, the Italian words vita nuova don’t appear anywhere in the text, jus the Latin vita nova…Some say this new life refers to a sexual or moral awakening in boyhood. Others say it refers to a shift of poetics occurring in mid-life”(50).

All of these above-mentioned suggestions can be used as a measure against which one can read this entire novel. Is she having a spiritual or a sexual awakening in this novel? And is it happening at mid life instead of in her youth? Or neither?

Shira goes on to reflect on new life and gives several other standards with which we can read this novel (many dealing with memory and the “life of consciousness” and what GWF Hegel would call “animal life”):

Can a ‘new’ life span an entire lifetime? What kind of ‘new life’ is that? The new life, we realize, coincides with memory. Before it, little can be recalled; after, much is remembered. Memory equals awareness of self in time – self plunged into narrative, if you will, self become object and observing subject. For Dante, then, the new life is nothing less than the life of consciousness – activated by love, empowered by imagination, moderated by reason. Understood this way, a new life experienced in childhood can still be new at mid-life. (50)

One again, Andi appears in the midst of her academic reflections on the meaning of memory and consciousness in narrative: “Andi stopped jumping and stood over me”(50). At this point, it should become clear to the reader that this is not just another standard; it is an existential kind of contrast in which one thing attempts to translate itself into another: the experience of childhood memory (via fiction) in mid-life. This experience can provide a kind of “new life.” But it isn’t real life. Andi is real life and she provides a real contrast that cannot be translated or bridged.

But she can’t see this. And when pressed by Romei about what she “really” thinks about what Dante means by new life she becomes cynical: “I think Dante’s new life is a fairy tale, something for children to believe in”(51)

Romei pushes her to explain what she means: “What do you mean by this? Romei asked.” And Shira’s answer says the opposite. Yet, she says its not possible. She comes across as a kind of cynical realist. She doesn’t believe in a “new life.” In real life, nothing changes. We can’t leave our old lives behind.

Dante believes we choose a new life: if we’re ready to walk the straight and narrow, we leave our old life behind and achieve salvation. I don’t think so. Stuff happens. People get sick, they win the lottery. But they don’t change? (51)

Dante “believes” in salvation – in life change – she doesn’t. At a certain point in life, she believes change/salvation is not possible. As opposed to lyric, narrative, story telling, is about change.. But it’s not possible in real life. Life is not a narrative. A new life is a fantasy that can not and should not be translated into belief or reality.

Shira says that Dante’s Beatrice isn’t real, she doesn’t change, an “idea can be perfect forever.” After hearing this, Romei says he will send his work for translation (51). She passed the test, in other words, by being cynical.

This suggests that despite the fact that she doesn’t believe that the change posited by narratives is real, she does it. Isn’t this what Sloterdijk – in his book The Critique of Cynical Reason – calls cynicism. Working, despite being bitter and knowing that much of what one does is nothingness, is – for him – a characteristic of the cynical age. And Shira and Romei seem to both be cynical writers whose promises of new life may look “good on paper” – but in reality, their fiction doesn’t translate into reality or belief.

Guilt, Repentance, and Teshuva (Return)

Besides Dante’s Vita Nuova and Romei’s quasi novel by the same name, there is another book in the novel which suggests another possibility; namely, The Song of Songs. Shira’s name (song) fits into this long erotic poem which the Rabbis of the Jewish tradition took into the cannon because they read it as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Jewish people. While both Dante and Romei’s confessions of love are false and his contrition is not forthcoming, Shira is different. Dante and Romei can be cynical poets. They don’t mind looking “good on paper.” Shira does.

As the novel progresses, Shira becomes more guilty about being locked into the fiction of fiction and the translation of translation (as a project that is based on betrayal and false promises of “new life” and salvation). To repent for her complicity in cynicism, so to speak, she looks to (as Paul Celan writes in the central poem of the novel) come across to “each other.” Coming across suggests a form of translating oneself toward the other. But Shira’s translation – in this sense – is incomplete.

Shira tries to come close to her Rabbi friend, Benny, but that fails. She tries to come close to her daughter, but that is also incomplete (her daughter wants to stay with Ahmed and go to Connecticut when he opts to move out of Brooklyn; she prefers spending time with him than with Shira since, after all, Shira has for so many years been lost in her incomplete life). However, although it is incomplete, it is still better than it was in the beginning.

The biggest form of teshvua (return/repentance) comes at the very end of the novel when she decides to return to her mother (who she turned away from) and ask for forgiveness. She flies to Italy as a pilgrim (but not in the Christian sense). And in doing so, she returns to memory. And she does so in the spirit of the Song of Songs and Paul Celan’s poem:

Sometimes we have no choice but to step into the flame. We know this, you and I, because we know how it is to close our heart around a hurt. I remember you, Mother, I remember that you once loved me father, I remember that once you loved me. I’ve opened my heart to you, you know all there is to know about me. This is my offering, you have me, I am yours. (295)

Before coming to this realization, Shira reflects on the miraculous. Although she thinks that “Celan’s chasm cannot be crossed, there is no true translation, no absolute fidelity,” she thinks that “yet, miraculously, it can be, there, and there is”(294). In the end, it is her faith that carries her over the impossible gap of translation and life toward the other:

We experience the new life in glimmers, I think, in moments when we apprehend the possibility of new life. When we choose to love through our innocent parts. When we lover though what hurts us, when we step willingly into shalhevetyah, love’s great flame, knowing we won’t be alone. Or we leap into the void, knowing that despite the emptiness that lies between us, we can sometimes find our way, all the way, to each other. Then change, real change, becomes possible. (294)

The great accomplishment of Rachel Cantor’s novel is the fact that she is able to not just utilize translation as a metaphor for bridging the gap but the fact that she also shows us that in coming close to the original we can come close to the other person. We can go in the hopes of finding love and forgiveness. And this is not a matter of fact so much as a matter of love and faith. It can only work, if the translator believes that somehow, despite all the disappointments and failures in life, a new life is possible. But that new life is shared. It is not something that only an artist can secretly scoff at or enjoy in private.

The afterlife of translation, to play on Walter Benjamin and wink at Paul Celan, can create a new life if it goes toward the other rather than oneself. It is only in the possibility of making amends with people than life can change since, after all, one cannot reverse time. If translation is to move in that direction and toward the shore of the other, it must struggle with a kind of cynicism that sees the salvation offered by literature as a fantasy. If it doesn’t go towards the other or prompt the reader to go toward the other, translation will only “look good on paper.”

As the last pages of Rachel Cantor’s novel teach us, the possibility of new life starts when one decides to go in that direction. But that is only the first step. Translation is not just a matter of taking words to another shore so much as taking them to a person who lives on the other shore. New life doesn’t depend on a change of space so much as in a reversal of time and that reversal depends on the other. It can create a new life rather than just another afterlife. Perhaps, in this sense, a new life is better than an afterlife.

The belief that one can make it through nothingness to the other (rather than being stuck in oneself) is greater and more powerful than the belief than one can’t. This is not only Rachel Cantor’s hope; it is also Paul Celan’s when he writes, at the end of “Conversation in the Mountains,” about how his love for the “candle” (literature as the basis of salvation) isn’t as important as the love “of those not loved” and the loved of those “who could love me.” He hopes that “now,” as opposed to the past, he will have their company rather than the company of literary solitude. This will affect a reversal of time and mark the beginning of …a new life:

“I didn’t love those who could love me, I loved the candle….I here and I there, I companioned perhaps – now! – by the love of those not loved, I on the way to myself, up here.”

About the Author:

Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction StudiesShofarMELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in PhilosophyComparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.