A translator struggles to redefine her work, her family, and her sense of self.
Translation, done well, is less an act of comprehension than one of empathy—the translator must enter the writer’s head and decipher not only her words, but her intention. In Cantor’s (A Highly Unlikely Scenario, 2014) skillfully structured second novel, dilettante temp and single mom Shira Greene approaches translation work in stages: first she retypes, then she handwrites, scans for rhythm, takes notes, builds a lexicon, and ultimately throws the draft away before starting “the real business of translation, trusting that everything I’d noted had sunk into my cells.” Shira handles her relationships in a similarly convoluted way, dancing around and into them in bursts before stepping back to take stock. This tends to cause a fair amount of chaos, especially for her young daughter, Andi, and her old friend and surrogate co-parent, Ahmad, whose home they share. When Shira gets a telegram from a Nobel-winning poet about what seems like a dream translation project, she dives in despite the strangeness and reticence of the author. As his manuscript trickles in via fax, each section more impossible than the last, Shira’s personal life becomes just as tangled: Andi, feeling neglected, starts to act out; Ahmad, critical of Shira’s laissez faire parenting, threatens drastic measures; and Benny, a charmingly flawed rabbi and bookstore owner, seduces and rejects her in turns while hiding his own Noah-worthy flood of secrets. It’s a lot to absorb, but don't hesitate to try—Cantor clearly loves her characters, and she shows true mastery of their inner lives. Between endearingly wonky riffs about translation, she offers full access to Shira’s roller coaster of emotions, the collisions of her past and present, and keeps us hanging on through every curve. You’ll want to reread the final chapters more than once, delighted anew each time by how well Cantor speaks our language.
In this feat of a novel, knowledge is a tiny first step on the way to understanding.