Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1812. 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?
I have such mixed feelings about this book. The premise is absolutely incredible, the cover blew me away, and R. F. Kuang had my heart after The Poppy War, so I had really high expectations for it. I buddy-read this with my husband, and since we both speak multiple languages and are constantly translating our thoughts plus I’m from a colonialized country, we had very interesting discussions about it and honestly, I enjoyed our discussions far more than the book itself.
To me, there are two ways that you can look at this book: first, how it works as an instrument of education on anticolonialism, racism, xenophobia and misogyny in academia, and as the title so nicely puts it, the necessity of violence. Secondly, as a story. The first is where this book truly shines – I had so much to think about, so much to discuss, and so many points where I wanted to learn more and pick up more literature on. This book is so rich in research and R. F. Kuang’s passion for the topics she discusses truly shines through!
As a story, though, this didn’t really work for me. The characters were so straightforward, written in a way that felt so predictable and lacking nuance, the plot itself was so predictable I was legitimately bored most of the time. It picks up at around 75% through, but by then you’ve read more than 400 pages and I just don’t have the patience to wait that long.
I read this during a very long train trip with a broken phone, so there was nothing else to entertain me but this book – it was such a strange experience, because I was at times fascinated and at others, just so bored by the plot and characters, by the strange pacing and weird interactions and dialogue. I get that all the characters are insufferable academics, and I can respect the need to geek about the things you love, but if you’re planning a life-or-death situation with huge stakes, maaaybe you don’t need to add witty remarks about the origin of a particular word every single page. It was a cute quirk in the beginning but by the end I wanted to skip entire paragraphs and just get to the point.
Another huge problem for me was that world-building. I will not go too much into detail because I think this might be spoiling some things that are relevant for the ending, but the magic in this world was so weird. I have no problem with the way the silver magic itself works, but I could not really buy into how this would work economically. I just don’t understand the limitation of knowledge to Babel when it looked to me like not much was stopping every other country in the world from using it, or why the silver-working team was so incredibly small. Like, you have the same people teaching silver magic, doing the silver work, doing maintenance everywhere in the country (mostly Oxford, but still), plus other stuff I won’t talk about in this review, and I just don’t see how that is a sustainable model in any way, shape or form. Who has the time for all this? It doesn’t make sense. Prioritize your time and resources, people. Get some technicians. And, while I’m complaining about practicalities – please get an accountant! Or at least a person who can do basic book-keeping. Really, I beg you.
I almost put “spoiler-free” on the title of this review because the plot is so predictable that anything I say could possibly be considered non-spoiler-y. But I am not sure what people would consider spoilers for this particular book, since the synopsis already gives most of it away anyway.
Generally, I just hoped for more. I know I just said this book was a drag and at nearly 600 pages it was quite painful to go through at times, but I think Babel would have worked better as a duology: giving it enough time for the characters to grow and develop their contradictory feelings about Oxford in a more organic way, showing a bit more of the revolution, maybe what’s going on overseas – I wanted to know so much more about that! I would have loved a second POV in which someone inside the resistance group was scheming or bringing the technology of silver work abroad.
Also – maybe that’s petty, but I didn’t like the footnotes, they annoyed me and brought me out of the story very often.
I think this story will resonate with people’s feelings on anticolonialism, xenophobia etc very strongly and a lot of readers will fall in love with this. Clearly Babel found its audience if I look at its rating on Goodreads, and I am really happy to see it! It was sadly not for me but I’m still happy for having read it and to see anti-colonial books get into the mainstream.