Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
The city of dreaming spires.
It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world.
And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows.
Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift.
Until it became a prison…
But can a student stand against an empire?
Generally, I consider myself a smart person.
I wouldn’t say a genius. But still relatively smart. I used to get decent grades at school and I’m quite proud of myself for that.
Then I read Babel.
And it was the ultimate reality check.
Because what I want to know is how. HOW? How does a normal human come up with a concept like this? Like how BIG BRAINED does one have to be?
So Ms Kuang – I can only assume you head must constantly hurt from carrying around such an incredible organ. If my brain could come up with a concept like this, I promise you nobody could talk to me.
I’d be unbearable.
“Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?”
We’re introduced to Robin Swift from a young child living in Canton, China. He’s the last in household alive, barely. That is until he’s discovered by Mr Lovell, who adopts him and brings him to England. In return, Robin must train to join Babel. The hub of translation and languages. The centre of the British Empire if you will.
There he meets three other students, Ramy, Victoire and Letty. A family is formed and Robin is convinced he’s finally found where he belongs. Its in Oxford, studying all these different languages at Babel. Understanding silver-working in relation to translations and how that generates the British Empire.
That is until Robin uncovers secrets and is forced to face the truth about the British Empire. He’s forced to make a choice. A choice that will ultimately decide his fate.
Gosh, does this book take you on a journey.
I won’t lie. This book is intense. It reads like a PHD dissertation on languages. Where they originate from, how they change and adapt, how social, economic and cultural influences can affect them.
I mean the book has footnotes!
How Rebecca managed to tie this to The British Empire and colonisation is beyond me.
But it works. It works phenomenally well.
She does not hold back in dissecting the ignorance and outright racist attitudes that the British Empire had. I can see why there was much discussion surrounding how uncomfortable this book will make you feel. There were times when my mouth would drop open at the sheer ignorance from some of these characters. It’s not hard to believe that these were the attitudes at the time.
The British public still suggests many of their current beliefs are rooted in these attitudes.
“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.”
I loved how Rebecca shows the similarities and differences between Robin, Victoire, Ramy and Letty. They all experience levels of ignorance but there’s still clearly a level of misunderstanding between these characters despite the similarities. To start with I didn’t really have an opinion on Letty, the white British young girl within their little family.
By the end, I was ready to throw her off a cliff.
Robin’s naivety is at the forefront of the novel. It’s also unsurprising how quickly he becomes bitter in a society that uses him for their own benefit.
As a young Black girl from the Caribbean, it’s unsurprising that I related the most to Victoire and enjoyed the discussions surrounding those countries and the Slave Trade. But I loved how Rebecca left no stone unturned when dissecting The British Empire and showing how it’s built on the blood, sweat and tears of those it colonised.
Albeit an enjoyable read – please do go into it knowing that’s incredibly intense and the writing is detailed. Perhaps at times, too detailed, which is rather strange criticism to have. I would sometimes lose my focus. It is a grim and harrowing read and you can tell that this piece of fiction is written by a scholar. Someone who took time researching bits and pieces to make sure everything worked when she decided to dissect the empire.
“This is how colonialism works. It convinces us that the fallout from resistance is entirely our fault, that the immoral choice is resistance itself rather than the circumstances that demanded it.”
With strong themes of belonging, race, prejudice and linguistics (of course), Babel will undoubtedly take you on a journey. A journey that will have some shifting uncomfortably in their seats whilst others will nod their heads in agreement. How you choose to react is completely up to you.
This is probably going to be one of my favourite reads of the year – without a doubt. R.F. Kuang is fast becoming one of my auto-buy authors. I can’t wait to read Yellowface coming out later this year by this author too.