Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence — An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
By Rebecca F. Kuang
Harper Voyager, US
“But that’s the beauty of learning a new language. It should feel like an enormous undertaking. It ought to intimidate you. It makes you appreciate the complexity of the one you already know.”
Such is the justification given by Professor Richard Lovell of the fictional Royal Institute of Translation, otherwise known as Babel. Someone learning a foreign language might agree, understanding that mastering a new language and its morphological richness is bittersweet: one’s growing command over the foreign words enthrals, but the subtlety lost in translation disappoints.
The acquiring of language skills, translating and then moulding them for an entire empire’s political and economic lust is at the heart of Chinese American writer and translator Rebecca F. Kuang’s most recent novel, Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence — An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.
Studying and interpreting languages require a unique comprehension of the cultures and histories they draw from. Every language is powerful in its own right, but translations have the power to move ideas, commodities, even people. In Kuang’s best-selling, award-winning novel, translations also enable the supremacy of an invading, cruel and cunning imperialist power over other nations.
In a best-selling, award-winning novel, translations that move ideas across cultures also enable the supremacy of an invading, cruel and cunning imperialist power over other nations
This academically styled fantasy work is at once knowledgeable, pleasurable and maddening — especially for the committed reader who is fuelled by scholarly pursuits. And, even with some questionable ‘period styling’ and Kuang’s constant ‘telling’ way of writing, it is a major step up in plotting and multi-layered characterisation as compared to her acclaimed predecessor series comprising The Poppy War (2018), The Dragon Republic (2019) and The Burning God (2020).
Babel is a story about a ravenous colonial power (if you assumed the British, you are quite right), the ability of language to shape human thoughts and actions (and vice versa), casual and institutional sexism, friendship, loyalty and betrayal.
In this alternate history of the British empire during the 1830s, magical silver supports colonial expansion, powers every working system in Britain and even extends into abilities such as healing, various effects on memory and inflicting serious bodily harm. These sorcerous powers of silver have been harnessed over a millennium, through a most daunting and compelling translation of languages.
The individuals imbuing the silver with magic are language translators. Comprising mostly men and very few women, the gifted translators spend years perfecting their language skills in the lofty tower of Babel that houses the Royal Institute of Translation at the University of Oxford. Once they become fluent in a language — so much so that they start dreaming in it — they set about finding “match pairs” in two languages that will be inscribed on to the bars of magical silver.
However — as Kuang likes to repeatedly tell us and spares no opportunity to emphasise — an “act of translation is always an act of betrayal” since some meaning is invariably lost in the process. This “loss” is caught by the silver, which uses it to create a desired effect in the person using the silver.
For example, a Babel linguist fluent in Greek and English can create the effect of forgetfulness with the match pair of ‘idiotes’ and ‘idiot’. The Greek word ‘idiotes’ means ‘private citizen’ and denotes someone who merely lacks the awareness afforded to a state official or member of the government. The English ‘idiot’ simply means ‘foolish’.
The nuance that the Greek loses in translation — in this case, the quality of being private — is channelled by the enchanted silver to make the bar’s user forget something. As Professor Playfair, another faculty member at the institute, tells his students, this is “very useful when you are trying to get enemy spies to forget what they have seen.”
English did not borrow words from other languages, it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular. And Robin found it incredible how this country, whose citizens prided themselves so much on being better than the rest of the world, could not make it through an afternoon tea without borrowed goods. — Excerpt from the book
The protagonist of Babel is language student Robin Swift. As a child in Canton [modern day Guangzhou], China, he is struck with cholera and Professor Lovell cures him with a bar of magic silver. The self-righteous academic takes Robin with him to England, where the child is raised in a strict, yet very privileged, world and receives daily lessons in Ancient Greek, Latin and Chinese.
When he enrols at Babel — the exclusive, select institution that promises its students “knowledge”, “distinction” and “civility” — Robin is joined by three others: Ramy, a self-aware Muslim boy from British-colonised India, and two girls — Victoire from Haiti and Letty from England itself.
Robin’s carefully tailored world begins to rip at the seams when he realises that the silver he will help enchant as a translator of languages fuels the greed of a sneaky political empire that holds itself to no moral standards. Cruelties are shamelessly manifested unto other nations, including Robin’s own, through the linguists’ scholarly work. Torn between choosing sides, Robin and his friends are thrown into a moral dilemma of colossal proportions.
Through Robin and his genius friends, Kuang gives fascinating lessons in linguistics, history and the many shades of translation. However, one can surmise from the university-lecture-style prose and rich profusion of footnotes explaining colonial history, slave history and etymology, that subtlety may not be the author’s greatest strength.
Babel often distrusts its readers, too, evident from the way Kuang hammers her messaging down in every chapter. By the halfway mark, I was very much enjoying the novel yet simultaneously quite ready to pull my hair out in frustration and scream, ‘Yes, colonisation and sexism are bad. I know, I know!’
On top of that, the characters often talk as if they were fished out of the 21st century. The book is set approximately 200 years in the past, yet certain dialogues — especially blunt opinions about race, the spirit-crushing effects of colonisation and the casual and institutional bigotry rampant in so-called ‘civilised’ British society — read outside of their time period. At times, these interactions seem like dark contemporary debates one might find on Twitter.
Despite these shortcomings, Babel is a contemplative and skilfully managed dark academia masterpiece that compellingly conveys Kuang’s research proficiency as a scholar, storyteller and translator. But, once they finish the book, readers are encouraged to reread the author’s note at the beginning to remind themselves that it is a “speculative work of fiction”, set in Kuang’s own beloved alma mater, the University of Oxford.
Be that as it may, though, Babel is a formidable memento of the brutalities of imperialism and Britain’s complicated relationships with its former colonies, where the atrocious after-effects of colonisation continue to echo.
The reviewer is an art historian, art and book critic and an academic of liberal arts at private institutes in Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 5th, 2023
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