A Book Many Wanted to Write

Kasia Szymanska, PhD, an assistant professor at the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester, reviews Rebecca F. Kuang’s Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (2022).

by Kasia Szymanska

When I read somewhere that Rebecca Kuang’s novel about a group of translators based at a non-existent translation institute Babel in 19th century Oxford was on the New York Times Best Seller list and won Blackwell’s Books of the Year for Fiction in 2022, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. How can an almost 600-page campus novel, which is generously peppered with footnotes, historical explanations, etymological definitions and examples of translations across multiple languages (including Cantonese, Sanskrit, Haitian French, Ancient Greek and Latin), make a splash like that? To make things sound even more unlikely, the plotline is not real blockbuster material either, even despite the cleverly invented selling phrase of #darkacademia and its fantasy appeal.

But the novel’s subtitle also gives us a teaser of what happens in the political realm: revolution and violence in Kuang’s Oxford are inevitable by-products of colonialism, forced acculturation, socio-economic inequalities, uneven exchange of goods and knowledge, and also the act of translation itself.

Kuang’s novel follows the story of Robin Swift, a Canton-born and Imperial Britain-bred boy who ends up studying translation at the University of Oxford as part of an intricate political scheme, which is at first completely unbeknownst to him. At Oxford, Robin joins the ranks of other outcasts and academic misfits studying at Oxford’s translation institute Babel (scornfully called “Babblers” by the other privileged students from the English elites). In fact, had it not been for Babel, all these students of translation would not get a place at university at all, falling into the category of either foreigners, exotic people of color (including slaves on the run) or women of all stripes. While their interlingual expertise does not fall into the traditional division of disciplines either, Oxford actually depends on this “foreign talent” and the exchange of different languages. The Babblers work day and night trying to find the least obvious translation “match-pairs” to fuel the production of very powerful silver bars and integral cogs in the imperial machine. Behind the scenes, the underground resistance group Hermes, mostly recruited from former and current Babblers, play havoc with the silver-working; eventually they are joined by the striking people of Oxford whose manual labor gradually falls out of favor and becomes derailed by the industrial revolution. In other words, welcome to Babel’s clockwork universe that Kuang has created, which combines and mixes all sorts of registers and literary codes: the historical and the contemporary, the high-brow and the low-brow, the scholarly and the non-academic.

Let me start with a little disclaimer: several threads in this book have resonated with me on oddly specific levels as they tap into many familiar areas and shared affinities. Having studied and worked at Oxford as a foreigner, woman and translation scholar, I read Babel from a particular point of view. In some instances, I was probably the one who knew too much: for example, I also worked at University College (called Univ), one of the constituent Oxford colleges where Robin Swift and most of the characters in Babel are based and where Kuang herself studied a few years ago (in fact, my and Kuang’s paths probably crossed on one of Univ’s courtyards at that point). This is also why I could not help but chuckle at what felt like a very familiar scene, in which Robin’s friend Ramy, a fellow translation student from Calcutta, looks at and discusses the frieze in Univs chapel; its relief sculpture depicts Oxford’s famous linguist and orientalist William Jones schooling Indian Brahmins on Hindu and Muslim law from the position of authority. I am probably not alone (at least in my generation) in finding this artwork and its real-life caption at least problematic, but also in finding the whole scene redolent of many similar informal discussions about its colonial message, including those we had with a half-Indian colleague at Univ.

In this sense, what Kuang’s Babel does exceptionally well is reconstructing a sense of dissonance typical of many beautiful and traditional places like Oxford. On the one hand, Oxford can fascinate you, stimulate you intellectually and satisfy your different appetites (including wine craving). To a large extent, both Babel’s Oxford and today’s Oxford can be seen as a community based on shared interests and knowledge, a powerhouse for multilingual study and interlingual exchange, and a hub of world culture (the “foreign talent”). However, just like Babel students experience a dramatic change of heart about Oxford throughout the novel, some resurfacing issues may also leave many of us who went through the Oxford system with a properly bad aftertaste. Kuang’s open critique of the institution (and the entire British state) from a postcolonial perspective finds its source in the ongoing attempts to revisit Oxford’s colonial legacy and involvement in slave trade. The most recent initiatives include: the Uncomfortable Oxford Tour, the Rhodes Must Fall movement, mapping relics of the era in All Souls College and the Oxford Union, to name a few. All of these could be, however, seen as a middle-ground path in getting out of the political impasse in order to avoid some of the more radical scenarios from across the UK, especially in Bristol and London.

In Babel, Kuang dramatizes this feeling of dissonance and the ensuing ethical dilemma by following Robin’s coming of age and political transformation. Surely, like many other Oxford students and academics, Robin benefits from the intellectual, cultural and economic resources of an institution which feels like an ideal place for his academic adventure and boosts his ego by officially legitimizing his excellence.

At first, he lives in a state of denial about its evil mechanisms of exclusion, hierarchy and violence, which is best portrayed in the novel through a symbolic pairing of Robin Swift with his doppelganger Griffin, whose vehement criticism of Babel keeps nagging at the back of Robin’s mind. Working undercover for Griffin’s clandestine organization Hermes, Robin can no longer go on to cherish his seemingly perfect life in Oxford and suppress his bad conscience. As Robin’s lookalike, Griffin becomes some sort of Dostoyevskian double representing Robin’s darker side and he irreversibly casts a shadow over Robin’s future. Similarly, while first internalizing some of the Oxford professors’ disdain for the working class on strike (a tension partly inspired by the Town and Gown conflict), Robin later grows to understand his and the strikers’ common cause. In the course of the novel, Kuang eventually sends Babel academics themselves on strike, making it the anachronistic precedent of the actual UCU industrial actions across many universities in the UK in the years 2018-2023, which also coincided with strikes in many other sectors by different professional and social groups.

Robin’s moment of revelation that he perhaps shares more in common with the strikers and the underground dissidents rather than the corrupt professors enmeshed in imperial conquest and warfare is the key turning point in the story. In this sense, Babel is a novel written on behalf of many more people who went to Oxford without sharing the historically dominant profile, whether due to their gender, state-school education, foreign provenance, race and/or class. Just like Robin suffers from imposter syndrome on many occasions, so can many Oxford members feel like complete dilletantes when surrounded by the age-old walls, competitive peers, and intimidating parties. As a woman and an immigrant in the UK, I also felt out of place in some situations for all sorts of reasons (for instance, when sitting next to the wrong person during the so-called “high table” dinners). This sense of belonging – or lack thereof – tends to receive uneven attention even though many Oxford colleges make institutional efforts to focus on community building, gender equality, diversity and inclusivity. Presumably, like Kuang herself, many at Oxford could identify themselves with Robin and feel equally uneasy about the university’s dubious past and present. This is also why I have a gut feeling that Babel is the sort of book that many at Oxford wanted to write but never dared.

As someone working on translation, I cannot really pass over the novel’s inventive treatment of translation’s performative power either, and especially the fact that Kuang also made it one of its central themes if not the key driving force of the story. In Babel’s literary universe, semantic shifts across different languages leave an indelible mark on the real world and change the course of history. By finding the least obvious translation “match-pairs” of words which may share the same roots or dictionary definitions, but have evolved in different directions (e.g. Greek idiótes and English idiots), Babel’s translators have the power to incite violence, spark a revolution or lead to life-and-death duels. No wonder that the act of translation feels, in the words of the novel’s protagonists, like “rewriting the world” and “drawing with the hand of God”.

Readers can follow meandering stories behind all explained etymologies and interlingual connotations with bated breath as these become curiously meaningful for the plotline: a range of etymologies provided for different emotions and feelings (anger, rage, agony, hope) justify their tangible effect on the characters’ actions; the romanization of the Chinese word for father (diē), which contains the same letter for death in English, symbolizes the inevitable fate of one character. Kuang raises her tower of Babel by pulling different linguistic strings and inventing many other rules of this language game: to make match-pairs actually work (as part of the magical silver bars) you have to be able to dream in a different language; dead languages may serve as etymological links for match-pairs but they don’t have power of their own, and using different translations of the word “translation” for match-pairs is a prohibited meta-spell which makes silver bars crack and shatter into pieces.

Explanations provided by either Babel professors or other characters for each of these mechanisms are both fascinating and actually grounded in translation thought and the broader philosophy of language (in particular, questions of bilingualism, lack of translation equivalence, and translation’s transformative power). What’s more, Kuang clearly did her homework on the so-called “cultural turn” in translation studies as she locates translation in many different realms beyond the linguistic one: in Babel, translation is deeply enmeshed in politics as it either consolidates or revises postcolonial orders and hierarchies between cultures (e.g. the scarcity of sources at Babel on some minor or “oriental” languages as opposed to European languages); translation is an economic force as it propels imperial conquest, diplomacy and trade exchange (both figuratively and more literally, through the process of silver-working); translation is a token of cultural identity as multi-ethnic, multilingual and diverse students of translation are contrasted with monolingual chauvinistic students drawn from the English elites (even though, as it is pointed out at some point, English itself is also “stuffed to the brim with foreign influences”).

Kuang is actually doing a fantastic job for translation scholars as she helps to get the message about the significance of translation to the public.

Even at Oxford itself, translation is a relatively new field of study and is mostly located on the fringes of more traditional disciplines and faculty divisions, especially: the OCCT research center, which gathered translation and comparative misfits like myself (and, hypothetically, a bunch of Robin Swifts) as well as other initiatives such the Babel: Adventures in Translation exhibition in 2019, which could have actually inspired the novel’s title. But, in fact, translation scholars from across different academic institutions have gone on for decades about translation not being a purely secondary and reproductive act. As one of them, I find it truly fascinating to see that novels such as Babel have the potential of breaking this news to a wide audience almost overnight.

This leads me back to the question of Babel’s popularity and Kuang’s magical recipe for the novel’s success. I believe that what Kuang does – in a really clever and measured way – is combine many different aspects of the low-brow and the high-brow, and mix a host of popular genres and familiar leitmotifs with elements more typical of an academic treatise. For instance, we could think of Babel as a novel putting a more political, revolutionary and postcolonial spin on fairy tales (such as Cinderella), popular fantasy books (such as J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter), coming-of-age stories (such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, also mentioned in Babel) and emancipatory Victorian novels (such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre). All of these follow the social progress of an orphaned outcast after first being thrown into the middle of a situation beyond their control. While borrowing from similar existing conventions, Babel also brings to mind other models such as the genre of campus novels, quite a few of which have actually been set in Oxford (e.g. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Dorothy L. Sayer’s Gaudy Night) and some are also based on the premise that things may at first appear idyllic only to take a different turn later on.

What’s more, some parts in Babel also wax melodramatic, thriller-like, and grotesque, especially when unexperienced students face events lifted from grand historical narratives: for example, when they plot how to cover up a murder of an important figure, and when the colonized manage to get to the point of a Django-like revenge on the white colonizers while realizing that they have not really imagined getting this far without a proper plan. This is also what makes Babel characters likeable even though they could otherwise sound like a pretentious and snobbish Oxford lot; after all, they are actually a bunch of dilletantes who may not be ready to confront the grand events they had previously only read about and studied so meticulously.

Here the fantastic also merges with the factual as Kuang sets the novel’s plot against the backdrop of 19th century historical events: we read about the Coronation of Queen Victoria, the invention of the telegraph, the proliferation of railway (especially the Manchester-Liverpool line) and the British-Chinese exchange of goods and the opium war, in which Robin is said to play a critical part as an interpreter. These background historical events are there to provide an effect of reality and to legitimize the authenticity of Babel’s universe just like Kuang’s relatively dense (but also funny) footnotes blend interesting and well-researched facts with fantasized stories. For example, in one footnote we read about George Psalmanazar, an actual (though illegitimate) professor of Formosa at Oxford, while the other goes into detail about a plausible (though fictitious) language experiment with Babel students who were locked in a castle for 3 months and only allowed to speak Old English. Some footnotes mix both: for instance, one focuses on the uncrackable code in the Baresh codex (aka the Volnich manuscripts), while also noting that Babel scholars have attempted and failed to translate it. By blending fact and fiction, footnotes in Babel – just like the novel itself on a macro-scale – nicely show how the authority of academic language and higher-education institutions can justify many shams and cons, both more benign and completely evil.

In the grand scheme of things, revolution at Oxford, as imagined by Kuang and pursed by Babel characters, is impossible. But even without Babel’s ceiling starting to crumble, we probably need more Robin Swifts to reflect critically on “dark academia” for all its intents and purposes.

By linking the context in which many higher education institutions operate to colonialism, socio-economic exploitation and cultural exclusion, Kuang’s novel raises many urgent questions for those who are part of the system and those who try to challenge it from outside.

Robin Swift’s path may be too turbulent and difficult to follow, but Kuang in her Babel is not the first one nor the last one to ask and tempt us with a “what if”.

In collaboration with Kasia Krzyżanowska, Ferenc Laczó, and Oliver Garner

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