The early 19th century Oxford was the center of intellectual progress where knowledge was born, transmitted, and put into use by the increasingly industrialized nation. The scholarly work of the time fueled Britain’s imperial growth probably as much as its conquest strategies and weaponry. And it’s precisely this role of education that R.F. Kuang questions in her 2022 novel Babel, or the Necessity of Violence.
In her fictional account of the 1830s Oxford University, Kuang creates an alternative history that superimposes the idea that knowledge, and language in particular, acted as powerful enablers of colonization. In her interview with The New York Times, she states:
“When we think about the technologies of empire and colonialism, we usually think of guns and ships. But in what ways has the understanding of knowledge — or the knowledge of languages of people that are in colonized territories — enhanced or exacerbated the brutalities of colonial rule?”
To explore the various aspects of this issue, Kuang builds a layered story that follows a group of students whose actions are set to change the course of colonial history.
The Demythicized Tower of Babel
Kuang’s fictional tower of Babel is a centerpiece of Oxford University and a home to the world’s most powerful translation institute. The prestigious institution awards lucrative stipends to talented young people whose knowledge of languages can support the development of new grammaticas. One of them is Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton who had been brought to England by the Babel professor Richard Lovell. The novel follows Robin as he discovers the academic opportunities at Oxford and makes friends with three other students in his class.
Despite their different cultural backgrounds – or precisely because of them – they bond over their common experiences of being an “other” in their environments. Each of them grew up estranged from their families and their immediate society that showed no understanding or support for their desires and ambitions. The four destitute souls easily develop a sense of belonging to the University that brought them together and are fascinated by the promise of scholarly work in the field of language. They are eager to master and dedicate themselves to the practice of silver-working, a fictional discipline that uses translation match-pairs to produce miraculous effects in the immediate environment.
Robin will be the first one to discover that all this glitter helps hide the dark side of the Empire’s obsession with languages and translation. Behind the apparent goal of developing the national industry and providing various tools for the rich, the investments into Babel have a hidden goal as well. The silver bars are powering the Empire’s clandestine colonization plans and are likely to decide the winner of the global power struggle. At this point it becomes difficult, but not immediately impossible, for Robin and his group to continue appreciating the opportunities given to them.
As they take sides, they are setting in motion a series of events that’ll turn this story into a proper thriller. Robin’s group gets involved in killings, riots, torture, and prison breaks as the small rural community of Oxford descends to chaos. Kuang shows us the society at its darkest – its thirst for power that knows no ethical boundaries and the elite filled with racism, greed, and social injustice.
Yet, despite the disturbing topics the novel brings to spotlight, a great degree of light and warmth still permeates its pages. In fact, it could be argued that its brightest and most imaginative layer is the one dedicated to translation.
Kuang’s Love Letter to Translation
While the brutalities of war and social restrictions give a dominant tone to the novel and drive its plot, its ingenuity lies in the metaphorical illustration of the power of translation. R.F. Kuang brings it into focus as a dignified, if often underestimated discipline that’s given humans the ability to make bonds regardless of their backgrounds. The entire novel could thus be read as a love letter to languages, celebrating their power to bring the world together. At the same time, however, Kuang criticizes those who use it to build walls between people and nations.
“Magic.” Professor Playfair pressed a hand against his chest. “What we’re doing is magic. It won’t always feel that way – indeed, when you do tonight’s exercise, it’ll feel more like folding laundry than chasing the ephemeral. But never forget the audacity of what you are attempting. Never forget that you are defying a course laid by God.”
Here Professor Playfair refers to the practice of silver-working that is made possible by subtle differences in meaning between matching words from different languages. These elusive shades of meaning can have a physical effect when the words are engraved into a silver bar and said out loud by a translator. As such, silver-working is an eleborate metaphor for the cognitive magic that happens in the brains of those who think in two or more languages and use their skills to bring intercultural knowledge to the world.
As she builds this conceit, Kuang also reminds us of the fact that the exploration of human speech has always driven civilization forward. She recounts the ancient stories and legends that deal with origins and diversity of languages, reviving the mythicized perceptions of something we take for granted. The most prominent of these stories is certainly the legend of Babel that lends its name to the very tower where the silver-working is taking place. Discussing the story of God giving different languages to the people to prevent them from reaching divine unity, Robin gives one of the most beautiful thoughts on translation:
“Well – since in the Bible, God split mankind apart. And I wonder if the purpose of translation, then, is to bring mankind back together. If we translate to – I don’t know, bring about the paradise again, on earth, between nations.”
This thought is also ominous as it reveals the paradox of our civilization that Kuang is looking to address. Instead of using the divine-like capabilities to bring the world together, we let them help deepen the gap between people.
The idea that the closest thing to magic that humans have can be commercialized and misused when governed by soulless ambition is perhaps the strongest metaphor Kuang offers us in this novel. This could be seen as her ultimate criticism of the choices we make as a society when we decide to turn our greatest values we have into material gain.
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