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    Lost in Translation

    R. F. Kuang’s Babel probes questions of power, language, and race. But it’s best at capturing the tension immigrants feel: to fit in or be yourself.

    By Cynthia Liu

    January 2, 2024

    As its alternate title “The Necessity of Violence,” betrays, Babel tackles difficult questions in its five-hundred-plus pages of academic adventure. The story is set in a fantastical alternate reality of the 1830s and takes place primarily in Oxford. Kuang’s tale has all the trappings of a classic “dark academia” campus novel, a genre that was popularized by Donna Tart’s Secret History in the nineties and is currently enjoying a revival. Indeed, the novel’s subtitle, An Arcane History, seems to be a nod in that direction; “Arcane,” from the Latin arcana, which often referred to the ancient mystery cults of Greece and Rome, an academic topic around which Tart’s murder mystery revolves. Similarly, Babel plays deftly with the linguistic world of ancient Greece and Rome along with many other languages. The tale is, at least at first glance, about languages and translation, primarily Chinese, Latin, and Greek. The novel is dotted throughout with footnotes, some linguistically enlightening and some historically enlightening, both of real history and of the alternate history of Babel’s world. As a Chinese classicist based in Oxford myself, currently researching the early-modern interactions between Greco-Roman and Chinese classics, I found the novel to be a delightful and clever engagement with a world I know well.  For anyone who has sat through a Latin class or two, read some of the great Greco-Roman classics, or simply enjoys languages and literature, the first half of the book is a wonderland of learning wrapped in storytelling.

    The novel opens in Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) after an outbreak of Asiatic cholera. We meet the main character, a recently orphaned Chinese boy, in an abandoned house filled with his dead family. He is taken from the side of his dead mother and from Canton by an Oxford professor of Chinese, Richard Lovell. Bound for England, the boy takes the English name Robin Swift. In London, Robin is rigorously trained in Latin and Greek to prepare him to go to Oxford, but he is also tasked with maintaining proficiency in Mandarin. Robin arrives in Oxford, and along with all the fun and fear of experiencing a new place and making a new group of friends, we learn more about why Robin was brought by Professor Lovell to England.

    In the world of Babel, England (and, in fact, many empires of the past) made its wealth on silver, which is possessed of magical properties. When inscribed with two (or more) words in different languages meaning roughly the same thing, the silver bar is powered by the “lost-in-translation” element. For example, a bar may have the Chinese word 招 (zhaō) meaning “to beckon, gesture; to recruit, to attract” on one side and the English “greet” on the other. The “lost in translation” element from the Chinese would be “to recruit, to attract,” and so the bar might be used in a fishing net to increase its ability to catch fish or on a billboard to increase customer engagement. The translation and alchemical work behind creating the bars and the “match pairs” with which they are inscribed is done at the fictional Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford (imagined to be situated behind the famous Old Bodleian Libraries), nicknamed Babel. As European languages interact with each other more and more, it becomes harder and harder to find effective match pairs, which is why Robin, along with students from different countries who speak different languages, become extremely valuable not only to the institute but to the British Empire.

    In addition to being about languages and their magic, Babel is also an account of empire and capitalism, and academia’s place therein. Immediately after arriving at Oxford, Robin meets a shadowy character who tells him things about himself, Professor Lovell, and the institute that fracture his charmed experience of being a first-year student at Oxford. The fractures deepen until about halfway through the book when Robin and his friends take a trip back to Canton with Professor Lovell. The trip is set in the year 1839 and Robin, acting as a translator for Jardine, Matheson & Co., plays an unwitting role in the burning of a shipment of opium under the orders of Commissioner Lin, an act which England took as cause to start what would become the First Opium War. History begins to fade into the background, however, as an event takes place that completely shatters the academic fantasy and leaves the reader unable to put the book down.

    Up to this point in the novel, Robin’s unease with the imperial aims of the institute have only simmered, and so throughout the first half of the book he only unwillingly interacts with a secret society called Hermes that has been pilfering bars from the institute and undermining its efforts for the empire. As the novel takes a deadly turn to political intrigue and rebellion, Hermes, named after the Greek god of merchants, thieves, writing, and messengers, shifts into Hermes Psychopompos, the Greek god who guides souls to the underworld. Robin discovers the institute’s complicity in the war and, together with many students of Babel, he launches a rebellion that turns tragic and deadly. Characters take different views on racism, empire, colonialism, capitalism, and the necessity of violence, and friendships begin to shatter.

    For the simple joy of a well-executed thriller, Babel  is worth putting on one’s to-read list.

    The conclusion of the rebellion and of the novel, though inevitable, is distressing. I was left with a feeling of great unease and dissatisfaction. What remains unclear is whether this unease was because the author successfully accomplished an open-ended finale intended on leaving difficult questions unanswered and storylines unfinished, or whether the message of the novel is unclear and lacking in its execution. In places, the novel’s exposition felt more didactic than blended in with the narrative and character development. The footnotes, while often amusing and enlightening, become more and more subversive. It is hinted, however, near the end of the novel that the story is itself a record written by the academic rebels themselves.footnote This metaliterary aspect should certainly be taken into account when one considers the questions the novel raises, how and whether it answers these questions, and whether it is successful in doing so.

    Beyond big questions of linguistics and power, Babel is also a story about displacement and memory. Robin, like many immigrants who “make it” in a system stacked against them, feels both relieved and resentful at the expectation that he should be grateful toward an unequal system in which he happens to have succeeded. The drive to survive and the desire for justice are sometimes in tension, and this tension is navigated differently by the different characters in the story who are in similar positions to Robin. Many readers will be familiar with the feeling of not fitting in with their contexts and with being caught between wanting to adapt to fit the environment – enjoying the many good things about the environment! – and needing to stay true to themselves and be truthful about the faults of the environment. This struggle takes on a particular poignancy for immigrants. In many ways, this aspect of the novel resonated with me the most.

    The way Kuang handles these dynamics and the ways these dynamics play out in community is particularly commendable. The biblical connotations of the title, besides reflecting on human attempts at power and empire, keep in the back of the reader’s mind ideas of being scattered and being separated. Kuang masterfully crafts the emotions of isolation and anxiety over the fragility of youthful friendship groups. She is also successful in conveying how powerful language is in connecting people and yet how very far apart from others language can make us feel. We never learn Robin’s real name, even at the end of the book as Robin experiences a vivid memory of Canton and his mother. He embodies, then, that which is lost in translation. The fear of being lost in translation is common, even when we speak the same language as our interlocutors.

    The vividness and cleverness of the academic fantasy-world Kuang creates is impressive. For the simple joy of a well-executed thriller, Babel is worth putting on one’s to-read list. However, the questions the novel raises are impossible to ignore, and readers should be ready to engage issues of race and politics that remain relevant today. Even though the novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century, it is evident that Kuang’s writing is responding to the concerns of the twenty-first-century West. These questions are undoubtedly important and the way we think about them and shape them in storytelling has a hand in how their answers play out in real life. Babel is not an easy read and may draw highly contrasting responses, but it is one I would heartily recommend to anyone who is interested in the spaces in between people and how we cross them.


    1. The unreliable narrator becomes particular focal point of Kuang’s next novel Yellowface, which explores many of the same questions, though in the modern world of popular publishing.
    Contributed By CynthiaLiu Cynthia Liu

    Cynthia Liu teaches Latin and Greek Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford, where she completed her Doctor of Philosophy in Classics in 2023.

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