Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.
Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.
Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
Between 3 and 5 stars.
I am a huge fan of The Poppy War so when I learned that Rebecca Kuang was writing a dark academia set up in Oxford, I was over the moon!
Now, after having listened to Babel (whose narrator Billie Fulford-Brown does a splendid job), I am left with many conflicted feelings!
I’ll try to list them here below:
🍂I found it slow in the beginning, a little bit boring then some parts went faster and were truly fascinating;
🍂I love languages and loved discovering more about it yet the many match pair in Chinese were sometimes a little too much. The same can be said with professors lectures on language and translation;
🍂I could see that Robin was taken from his homeland and that he was abused, forced to fall into a mold, never seen as British and exploited. Yet I never really fell into his shoes to the point of living his life and deeply caring about him. There was always like a distance between him and me. Rin from The Poppy War had me rooting for her and living her life for the very first pages. She was so intense she could not be ignored. Robin was all shy, doubts and introspection. Very malleable for a very long time until he became someone totally different in the end.
🍂 The historical element even if amended by the magical element of silver was very well done yet some inconsistencies grated me the wrong way. Yet I knew it was fiction so the author was entitled to take liberties with history. I think going full fiction would have worked better for me rather than skating so close to history yet adding fantasy. Probably because Rebecca’s writing is so precise and her knowledge of history so profound that you don’t feel she can/would add untrue elements to her story.
🍂I was equally enthralled yet bored at times. That was a very peculiar feeling. Wanting to rush to the end of the book, to have it end yet delighting in some parts of the story back again. On and on, switching between these two emotions, in a loop.
🍂I didn’t want it to end but switched to wanting to have a peek at the ending.
I am aware that after reading this, you won’t have a very good idea of what is Babel about but I’d like to say “go read the synopsis” as it’s a fair depiction of the book’s intrigue.
Let’s just say that Babel is a complex book, with an exceptionally beautiful writing, broaching heavy topics like racism, strikes, oppression, misogyny, colonialism, exploitation on a magical backdrop that evoked many conflicted feelings for me.
One thing is true: I learned tons about British colonialism and … translation.
RF Kuang is still one of my favorite authors, even with my torn thoughts.
Thanks for reading.