“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.”– R.F. Kuang, Babel: An Arcane History
R.F. Kuang writes a spellbinding, dark and immersive story in Babel: Or The Necessity Of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. This novel is a standalone dark academia mixed with speculative fiction, history and fantasy set in the 1800s. It’s about the power of language and linguistics amidst a broken rooted empire that in-turn drives a student revolution. While reading, Kuang makes it feel like the reader is placed in an alternate reality of the world, especially with the magical integration of the silver-workings in terms of how Babel, located at the Royal Institute of Translation, continued to grow in wealth and knowledge while other class groups were simply forgotten. The use of silver is enchanting and plays a large part in the fantastical use of language and translation throughout the novel.
Kuang describes Babel as a love letter and breakup letter to Oxford, where she attended graduate school. This is not the typical genre of fantasy that I normally gravitate to, but I was pulled in by Kuang’s academic-focused (including detailed historical annotations) writing style. Before reading Babel, I read her Poppy War Trilogy: The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic and The Burning God. I couldn’t get enough, I was so engrossed in the trilogy inspired by China’s twentieth century bloody history mixed with magic that really showcased the dark days of war-time. While reading Babel, it is evident that Kuang touched on real-life experiences of racism and degradation while at Oxford. This made the story much more emotional to me. It makes you think, how much has truly changed since the 1800s?
“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.”– R.F. Kuang, Babel: An Arcane History
The main narrator in this book, Robin Swift is taught the importance of translation from a young age in order to become a student at the Royal Institute of Translation, Babel specifically. He meets three other students, Babblers (those who study at Babel) who struggle through their studies, but also realize that there are secrets brewing amongst Babel and Oxford that are worth investigating, in order to start a crucial, world-saving revolution. The power of language transforms and dominates the future, whether violence is necessary or not.
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.