“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular. And Robin found it incredible, how this country, whose citizens prided themselves so much on being better than the rest of the world, could not make it through an afternoon tea without borrowed goods.”
An act of translation is an act of betrayal. That quote sums up the themes of Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution by R.F. Kuang.
Babel is a tower in Oxford dedicated to translation. Translation is key to magic in this setting, and as such, the key to power and maintenance of empire. There are two necessities to magic: silver (the more the better) and match-pairs of words in two languages. The discrepancies between their meanings, carved into silver, is where magic comes from.
The protagonist is Robin Swift, a Cantonese boy who is taken from his dying mother in the slums back to Britain by his father, a professor at Babel. This is a common tactic, where they will take children who have a language underrepresented at Babel, then teach them English, Latin, Greek, and other languages. Robin Swift is not his birth name, which is lost, but him picking a name for the ease of English speakers.
He meets his cohort of friends, and studies hard, hoping to become another Babbler and more importantly one able to work on the silver bars with match-pairs. The opening of the book is slow, building the world in a thousand small ways and making it feel fleshed out. And not just the setting, but the character dynamics of Robin and his cohort, all of which is integral to the back half of the book. They all have these glorious days ahead of them, lifetimes of leisure if they simply do what they’re told. At the same time, the work of the silver bars they’re making makes life more difficult for regular labourers whose work is being usurped by this magic.
The details of academia are intruded upon occasionally by Griffin, a former student now a member of the Hermes Society. They work against Babel, mostly in small ways, and Griffin wants Robin to steal silver bars from Babel. Griffin has a similar backstory to Robin (they even both stayed in the same room, years apart, and Robin originally views him as a doppleganger) but is significantly more paranoid and violent. He won’t answer any of Robin’s reasonable questions because he knows what will happen if the wrong person finds out about any of it.
As the book heads towards the ending, it becomes very evident that Griffin’s paranoia is justified, and the back half of the book maintains the first half’s slow, detail-oriented nature while ramping up the tension and not letting it flag for a moment.
One of the strongest parts of this book is the way every single part of it comes back to translation. The book keeps dragging everything back to that conceit. The magic system, the inventions that arose from it or were adapted by it, and of course the academic:
‘Translators are always being accused of faithfulness,’ boomed Professor Playfair. ‘So what does that entail, this faithfulness? Fidelity to whom? The text? The audience? The author? Is fidelity separate from style? From beauty? Let us begin with what Dryden said about The Aeneid. ‘I have endeavored to make Virgil speak such English as he would himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present age.’
The book also footnotes plenty of the additional information. Some of these offer more explanation of real historical or linguistic facts, and some are in-world explanations for differences between this setting and the historical record, and some explain secondary character’s backstories in a way that otherwise wouldn’t fit into the text. For example, in a discussion on testing:
…fourth years were subject to what was called the ‘door test’ in which recent examinees lined up to walk through the entrance the morning after grading was finished. Those who had passed would step through the door with no trouble; those who failed would be treated by the tower as trespassers and suffer whatever violent punishment the current wards were designed to inflict. This practice was finally abolished on the grounds that maiming was not proportionate punishment for academic underperformance, but Professor Playfair still lobbied annually to bring it back.
I expect this book will end up with numerous nominations for SFF awards, and it will absolutely have earned every single one.This book has easily been my favorite book I’ve read this year.