Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang

Learning another language is hard work for most of us, and I’ve always been a little jealous of kids who grew up bilingual and people who have the knack for picking up new languages. It’s not just the memorization, which I think of as a feat on its own. It’s also the ability to get one’s brain to push a native language to the side enough to let in new grammar, idioms, word order, and cultural context. That first language always leaves a big imprint. I’ve never really been able to get past the stage of translating in my head whenever I’ve attempted to pick up a new language. I’ve always dreamed in English. The protagonists of Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang, however, have the knack for language. Once their linguistic talents were discovered, our protagonists were scooped up from around the British Empire and sent to Oxford University, to take part in the multilingual machine that fuels the whole operation. Word nerds will love this highly original historical fantasy.

Robin Swift was rescued from death by cholera (which killed his family) in Canton by a wealthy Oxford don. His early fluency in Cantonese and English gave Professor Lovell enough confidence in Robin’s talents to take him to England, teach him Latin, Greek, and Mandarin, and eventually send him to the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University. The Royal Institute controls the silver-work trade. In this version of history, silver has the ability to transform the inherent instability* of translations to make ships go faster, heal the sick, ensure the safety of roads, and do so many of the things that keep the British Empire ahead of the rest of the world. At the Royal Institute, Robin and the rest of his cohort—Ramy, from Bengal; Victoire, from Haiti via France; and Letty, the sole British student in their group—learn to trace etymologies along with studying the vocabulary and grammar of their designated languages to create the powerful match-pairs of words that fuel the silver.

Robin has had doubts about the British Empire and his role in it almost since he met Lovell. These doubts grow in the face of the casual racism he and, later, the brown members of his cohort experience constantly in England. Robin also grows up starved of love in Lovell’s house. There are strong hints that Lovell is Robin’s biological father and yet the man is incapable of praising Robin or showing him any sign of affection whatsoever. Worse, Lovell firmly believes in the superiority of the white race and is violently prejudiced against Asians. The only reason he learned Mandarin and Cantonese—and fathered children with Chinese women—was because the Royal Institute required increasingly diverse match-pairs because the English language notoriously adds new vocabulary whenever its speakers meet a new language. Robin’s questions about the injustice he sees everywhere around him only grow louder as he learns more about what the Royal Institute and the British government have done and are doing to preserve their preeminence.

As Robin and his cohort get closer to graduation, the novel shifts from Babel to The Necessity of Violence. More people than just Robin, Ramy, and Victoire are unhappy about the status quo. They are contacted by members of the Hermes Society, a group of disgruntled students and former students of the Royal Institute who want to change the world. They want justice. They want equality. The problem is that they are tackling entrenched, systemic inequality and they can’t decide if the best way to affect change is by persuasion or through violence. Robin et al. waver between peaceful protest and violent acts of sabotage for much of the book, until betrayal and events that look an awful lot like the start of the Opium Wars kick off. They can’t go on among Oxford’s dreaming spires with clear consciences. Something has to be done.

Some readers might find Babel a little preachy at times. Even though I agree with a lot of the arguments made here about redistribution of wealth, anti-racism, gender equality, and dismantling monopolies, there were some sections of dialogue I skimmed over. That said, there was a lot I loved in this book. I loved the tricky character development and psychological realism. I adored Kuang’s reimagined Oxford and magical system. I was absolutely hooked by the sections that discussed with relish the intricacies of language. As I said, word nerds are going to enjoy the hell out of this book. I also think that readers who see injustice in the real world around them will find a lot to relate to here and, maybe, find some of the gumption Robin finds to make a stand and foster change for the better.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Panorama of Oxford University, 2016 (Image via Wikicommons)

* While it is possible to translate words one-for-one between languages, something is always lost in terms of nuance and context. Translators often wrestle with fidelity (perfectly capturing the original language) and making something flow in another langauge. For example, German word order often kicks a verb to the end of a sentence. For example, if I were to faithfully translate the sentence “Ich würde lieber Kaffee trinken” in English, I would end up with the ungrammatical “I would prefer coffee to drink.” It’s easy with this simple example to re-render the sentence into “I would prefer to drink coffee” without losing much, if anything. But this small example doesn’t involve untranslatable terms like Schadenfreude**, idioms, complex tenses, etc. When that happens, translators have to make choices about what’s essential and what’s grammatically/lexically possible.

** One of my absolute favorite words and I’m glad English stole it from the Germans.


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