Babel

Babel

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by RF Kuang debuted at the first spot on The New York Times Best Seller list, and won Blackwell’s Books of the Year for Fiction in 2022 and the 2022 Nebula Award for Best Novel. It is a work of historical fiction that revolves around four translators from different parts of the world studying together at Oxford University in the 1830s, when the British Empire was growing rapidly in power, reach and wealth. It is a gripping story, well-researched and linguistically insightful. It is also a seering critique of imperialism.

Translation

We are now used to language learning apps that allow us to acquire equivalent words from one language in another as a game; and to digital translation that allows us to express ourselves in one language and have our words instantly presented in another – even in our own voice. Babel has a vital message for us in these times, which is that:

“The first lesson any good translator internalises is that there exists no one-to-one correlation between words or even concepts from one language to another.”

The alternative meanings, nuances, connotations, images, connections, history and emotions of what we say in one language cannot be fully “carried over” (the literal meaning of “translate”) into another. Thus, we cannot translate without doing violence to the original.

Power

To get light from a candle, we must destroy it through burning. This forces chemical energy to be transferred to light, but in the process energy is also lost to heat. The marvellous ruse of Kuang’s book is to use silver bars as a physical medium in which to capture the energy that would otherwise be lost when we translate from one language into another. These silver bars, manufactured and maintained by multilingual scholars in Oxford, are what power the British Empire in the novel.

“The power of the bar lies in … the stuff of language that words are incapable of expressing – the stuff that gets lost when we move between one language and another. The silver catches what’s lost and manifests it into being.”

The Empire uses this to make itself richer at the expense of others. It sees other nations simply as resources with which to make things better for itself. The languages of those nations are the keys with which to unlock the gates so that the imperialists can then take whatever they want. The translators are suffering people ripped from their homes and families, pampered with comforts beyond their imagination, and given the head-spinning opportunity to make magic with words which Britain then uses to extract what it wants from their places of origin.

Violence is necessary to imperialism.

Imperialism

“Imperialism is when a country extends its power into other territories for economic or political gain.”* Imperialism is not just a policy or practice; it is also the underlying theory and attitude. Britain was an especially rapacious empire, but it was far from either the first or the last. Today the earth quakes as we see imperialism at play today in more than one nation with global influence. The nationalism that continues to rise angrily through other territories is simply the same mindset on a smaller-scale.

The danger has always been that we see others as the problem. If only we could subdue or remove them, then all would be well. This is the age-old lie that blinds us to our own imperialist orientations, however large or small the scale. To illustrate, let me as a white Western Christian call out my own tribe.

America – the effective successor to the British Empire – is imperialist because it ultimately cares only about being number one in the world. Its dealings with other nations are to make itself richer. Why is it so loud about democracy and free markets? Because in a democracy, it is individuals not the state which owns things so they are always for sale at the right price; and in a free market it is the one with the most money who gets to buy what they want. In the current world order, that is America.

The country does not even need to have the money: it can just borrow it, whilst punishing those nations that are in debt to it! David Graeber’s book Debt: the first 5000 years explains why the richest and most debt-laden of nations is also the biggest spender on the military. Debt (the way to buy what you want now, driven by an imperialist mindset that ultinately sees others as no more than resources) and violence are necessarily linked.

Meanwhile, Roger Hayden Mitchell’s The Fall of the Church explores a massive capitulation to imperialism in the 4th century which has created an internal conflict for Western Christians ever since. Under Constantine, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire – the official and respectable one. In becoming chaplain to the state (which always has enemies it is determined to kill) the Church has had to compromise massively on the command to “love your enemies.” Time and again it has had to turn away from Jesus’s example of dying for his enemies rather than killing them – of suffering and absorbing violence rather than meting it out to others.

Seeing

Tragically, in the end the students in Babel appear to fall into the same old trap, mistakenly believing that wreaking violence is the only way to tackle the evils of imperialism.

And yet within their conversations lie the seeds of a genuine antidote:

“Languages are … modes of looking at the world … A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving through the world. No; a thousand worlds within one. And translation – a necessary endeavour, however futile, to move between them.”

The power, fantastically captured in the silver bars in the novel, is real and accessible to us all. Whether that power serves to promote or counter imperialism is down to us and how we use it. Will we share our insights and resources with others for the benefit of all, or will we wield them as weapons violently to snatch from others what we want? That is the choice we each have to make – individually, corporately and nationally.

As the book closes, we are left with this final glimmer of hope, more relevant than ever to us in this fraught digitally-enabled 21st century:

“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.”

* Neat definition taken from thebalancemoney.com