Babel, Or The Necessity Of Violence: An Arcane History of The Oxford Translators’ Revolution, a cross between historical fiction and sci-fi fantasy by R. F. Kuang indicts, educates and urges us to reframe—to (re)translate—the dominant narrative of what the West calls its civilization. Babel, brilliant both in concept and execution, is a page-turner with footnotes, a thriller with a higher purpose, a Bildungsroman where the stakes matter. Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts,” or The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Babel is a necessary, timely rebuttal to current misreadings of history, and, like them, does so with innovative use of narrative forms and by redefining the nature of historical evidence. Having wept at the ending (no spoilers, but the epilogue offers a glimpse of hope and a likely sequel), I anticipate this important book sparking discussion, both about the novel qua novel and as a contribution to debates over how to remove and repair systemic global inequality and oppression.
Robin Swift loses his Chinese mother to cholera in Canton and is taken to England in 1829 by Professor Richard Lovell—the man we eventually learn is Robin’s father. Lovell is a leader of The Royal Institute of Translation, which is the center of Great Britain’s imperial power in a world where magicked silver speeds warships and guides grenades, based on how well translators can match word-pairs between languages and inscribe those pairs into the metal. The farther apart the two languages are, the more potent the magic. For instance, wúxíng is paired with “invisibility” on the silver bar Robin’s half-brother Griffin Harley wields when the two meet accidentally in the midst of a midnight heist by Griffin. Another example is the Sanskrit bhintte paired with “dissolve,” to disperse a besieging mob.
Lovell and other professors coerce or lure native speakers of strategically vital “exotic” languages, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Urdu, Bengali, and Arabic, into becoming scholars at the Institute, which is part of the University of Oxford. Housed in a library-workshop colloquially called “Babel Tower,” the Institute is a blend of our world’s East India Company College at Hailey, and the Oxford English Dictionary Scriptorium. There Robin joins Ramiz Rafi Mirza from Calcutta, Victoire Desgraves from Haiti via Paris, and Leticia Price, the rebellious daughter of an English upper-class family. The relationships between these four drive the novel, from their love for one another, through an inevitable betrayal, and to the momentous ethical dilemmas thrust upon them. I loved these characters for their wit and strengths, their delight in learning from one another, and their dawning self-awareness fraught with grief.
Robin and his friends discover that the Institute is helping the government plan a war on China, the one we call the Opium Wars. As in our own world throughout most of the past two millennia, the world of Babel depends on silver as the main medium of international trade. China in both worlds held most of the silver because its trade balance was robustly positive—the West had few exports that China wanted, while the West craved China’s advanced products such as silk and porcelain. Robin comes to realize how crucial his fluency in Chinese would be for the invasion of his homeland, and is thus willing to be recruited by a secret society of translators seeking to thwart the Institute’s aims. He enters a space of clandestine meetings, purloined documents, coded messages—and then into open rebellion. Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty must decide how far they will go in their conflict with the Institute and the Empire. Their discussions of the French and Haitian revolutions, of the Swing Riots and the Parisian uprising of 1830, move from academic to tactical. Culminating in 1840, Babel‘s final chapters pulse.
Kuang creates an alternative world that reveals the power dynamics of our own history more trenchantly than do most histories on the non-fiction shelf. Babel may take place in a calque of the Regency and early Victorian eras but it is no costume drama, no play of light on the sunny uplands of misbegotten nostalgia. Kuang briskly demolishes the edifice of cruelty, cant, and racism with such erudition as to be undeniable, and with such provision of engaging characters as to make enlightenment unavoidable.
The depth and reach of what Babel covers delights as it informs. Kuang gives us a primer on translation theory going back to ancient Greece and Rome, with asides about (to name just a few examples) Hildegard of Bingen’s Lingua Ignota, Schlegel’s botched translation of the Bhagavad Gita, the contradictory meanings of characters in the Classical Chinese Shijing (“Book of Songs”), and Erasmus explaining his word choices in translating the New Testament. She sprinkles etymologies and idioms throughout, in over a dozen languages, plus quotes from John Milton, Herodotus, P. Cornelius Tacitus, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and many more. Information about the origins of Morse code, conditions at the Potosi silver mines, the Peterloo Massacre, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” furthers the story and is delivered with panache. Kuang attends to detail: the names of merchant firms, bookshops, shipyards, and even individual ships come from the historical record, and all manner of historical personages play cameo roles. She takes pains to situate Babel Tower plausibly, and she makes particularly ingenious use of Durham College’s history as an important plot-point. I was immersed from the first sentence.
Babel is a counter-narrative whose ancestors include the autobiographies of Olaudah Equiano, Omar ibn Said, and Mary Prince (all referred to in the book), and the novels Max Havelaar and Wide Sargasso Sea. Babel is a peer of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, Patricia Rozema’s film retelling of Mansfield Park, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, and works by N.K. Jemisin, Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, and P. Djèlí Clark. Robin’s actions, with attendant anger, honor, and heroism, embody the arguments made by post- and decolonialist thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Gyan Prakash, and Gayatri Spivak, with whose varied thought Kuang is clearly conversant. Babel is a mighty example of what Hartman calls “critical fabulation,” retelling a story—or helping us understand why some stories may be impossible to tell within genres defined and patrolled by those in power—through cross-linking emancipatory theory, speculative fiction, and interrogation of archival evidence, including the elisions, silenced voices, and falsehoods archives contain.
“Here’s a chance to intervene against the archives, no?” says one of the rebellious translators. Babel‘s story unfolds within the recognition that archives are political loci, force fields of linguistic violence that not only mirror but reify power relationships. Words are the quarks and muons of the force fields and relationships. As Griffin says to Robin about the tower’s translational silversmithing: “It’s intricately tied to the business of colonialism. It is the business of colonialism. […] Everything Babel does is in the service of expanding the Empire.” In these, and dozens of other passages, Kuang brings to life and makes visible what typically lies inert and truncated in traditional textbooks, or is missing from the curriculum altogether. Read Babel both for its derring-do and buddy adventure and for its nuanced but searing focus on how language drives power and maintains oppression.
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
By R. F. Kuang
Published August 23, 2022