a review and some thoughts on translation

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Author R.H. Kuang describes her novel, Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, as “a work of speculative fiction [that]…takes place in a fantastical version of Oxford in the 1830s, whose history was thoroughly altered by silver-work….”  We introduce the book, Dear Reader, to provoke some thoughts on the subject of translation.  Babel is an odd book by any standards, variously categorized in the reviews as “science fiction,” a “historical fantasy,” and not quite fitting either as far as I can tell. Normally, I would eschew science fiction in particular, save work by Stanislas Lem; for despite the occasionally interesting speculation, much in that genre is so poorly written as to tempt one into the sin of book-burning (Phillip K. Dick comes to mind.)*

Kuang herself is an academic writing with a welcome sense of whimsy, even inserting the occasional footnote not as one does in an academic treatise, but to translate a phrase appearing in another language, to comment on or shed light upon the ongoing action. I must say, those notes fit seamlessly into the narrative.

The book’s fiction is that a Chinese boy, possibly mixed race, is spirited away from his native Canton in the middle of a cholera epidemic, given a typically English name, reared with little affection by a professor at the Oxford Institute of Translation, and then enrolled in that same, then very prestigious, institution. 

There he soon learns that one of the most prominent features of the Institute is a tower, which students and faculty alike fondly refer to as “Babel” and hence the nickname of these precious translators—”babblers.” However Robin, as our protagonist is called, finds out that all is not as it seems: the life of the mind, attractive as it is, is being used for less noble purposes.

Enter the demon capitalism, red in tooth and claw.  For translation, as practised in the Institute is done in the service of colonialism, which in turn is a form of capitalism bent upon raiding others’ worlds for their resources and for cheap (in the case of the trans-Atlantic slave trade—free) labor.** All the while colonialism also attacks/suppresses/even destroys the colonies’ indigenous languages and, via the empire (language = culture) indigenous cultures. Along these lines, I have read a few rather off-the-cuff reviews of the book which begin with a rather facile definition of translation as an act of betrayal. Perhaps in Kuang’s book, as the silver-work referred to consists of students trained in working silver bars with the finest, most skilled work done at the top of the tower: a word from one language is engraved on one side and on its reverse, another word engraved such that the combined strength of both literally ignites a surge of energy, enough to power factories, transport—in effect, a surge of energy that creates an industrial revolution. Clear analogies reference the Luddite struggle—craft and craftspeople being made redundant by machines that produce more, of inferior quality but of great profitability. In the case of Robin, originally from Canton, the pending Opium War—where Britain aimed to force the drug upon the Chinese to promote British profits—results in a rebellion among some students, including Robin. 

* * *

​Now, in my own most interesting of times, to paraphrase the curse falsely attributed to the Chinese—in these interesting times, I sense that my mother tongue has been imperiled, at least in its written form: cliché, technospeak, academic doublespeak, and, conversely, the utterances of some who have fallen prey to the pernicious ideologies that infest our respective cultures and poison its education. I am a proud Luddite; for I find fewer and fewer books coming out of my own culture that don’t just bore me silly. Rather, I find myself reading more and more books by authors from other language cultures, and often in translation. No, I do not think of their respective translations as acts of betrayal—rather I am eternally grateful to those translators—yet Kuang’s book does present that interpretation as one possibility.

Let me digress further by adding that my objection to the rather synthetic language of far too many contemporary English language novels is not based on some notion of a pure, uncontaminated language. Despite such institutions as the Academie Française*** and its equivalent in other language cultures, the idea of a pure tongue denies what language is. My ancestors spoke Anglo Saxon, Old Norse–norrœnt mál or, literally, “northern speech”—probably Breton, definitely Normand; Cauchois, other languages of the west and northwestern areas of France; Cymraeg (Welsh), Irish (Gaelic), Scottish Gaelic and Manx, Euskara (Basque); and before that perhaps Aquitanian; Latin… Ancestors or no, whatever groups migrated toward and subsequently spread over the face of the British Isles made their contribution to the English I now use. No, my mother tongue is most assuredly not pure. Nor has my or any other language stood still, especially that which has been spoken but also that which has been written. Further, as writing came into existence and ultimately what was said found its way onto a page and into dictionaries, there came the attempt to hew to some semblance of standardisation, of a common understanding when using that written word. Et la voilà!  Grammar, spelling, punctuation…

On the negative side, and as the book, Babel, and others rightfully suppose, consider colonizers’—conquerors’—languages: these impose. Certainly the imposition of the conquerors’ languages upon empire/subject peoples and the persistent attack on indigenous languages persists. (At least one indigenous language where I now live, Bri-bri, is still forbidden to its native and non-native speakers.) Correspondingly, it is this notion of both imposed tongues, multiple tongues and translation having electric powers that drives Kuang’s Babel.  

I will not give away Babel’s ending, save to say there is an odd non-exploration of the subtitle; but the pertinent point here is that the pitfalls of translation are many, from privileging a particular language and its attendant culture to its misuse as an agent of conquest, to silencing other voices rather than sharing them—reducing the particular magic of a language in the interest of a false and easy ‘understanding’ for those wishing to dominate or those who (let’s just say it!) lack curiosity, fear change or the admission that their emperor has no clothes. I refer to a kind of linguistic agoraphobia where not only is a particular verbal system imposed, but also where difference is to be “tamed,” mined of its resources, shorn of its “strangeness.”  While, indeed, that is a form of theft and pejoration, here is the dilemma: where colonizers’ language itself is reduced to hackneyed slogans, monoglottal grunts, that demonstrates that its culture is somewhere in the process of turning in upon itself, like Britain and its jingoistic embrace of Brexit, locking out the “foreign,” the “other,” whether it be a language or those at home or abroad who speak another language.  More than anything, such agoraphobes impoverish their own language in the process.

Rather, we must both nourish our own and open ourselves to the music of others.



* Though the New York Times, ever so briefly, has sung its praise, I would quibble about some of the language.  Babel takes many worthy risks, but some of the writing is banal, and the characters unevenly developed. I must add, however, it is still very much worth the read.

​** See Eric William’s classic Capitalism and Slavery.  The author, formerly prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago (1961-1981), convincingly argued that the profits from the Transatlantic trade financed  industrial capitalism.

​*** Never mind that 80% of the so-called French did not speak French when that country first coalesced as a nation, or that hundreds of indigenous languages, and African languages are and have been under attack from colonialism and its residues, though some of the latter have sneaked into some of the colonizer’s most vibrant expressions.