Babel: translation and alternate worldmaking in a recent novel

Last spring, our research programme reading group focused on translation theory and translation studies, reading our way through a rather long list of essays, articles and books. One of them was Jacques Derrida’s “Des tours de Babel” (1985), in which Derrida dwells on the problems that translation causes: the confusion of language and its changing meanings. The biblical account of the tower of Babel is used as an example or image of this confusion. Derrida’s essay is difficult to read, marked by irony and in itself rather confusing, but one important point is that God’s destruction of the tower creates the need for language to be translated, while at the same time making it impossible to be translated. And the word Babel is itself a case in point, argues Derrida: it cannot be translated, because we don’t even know if it’s a name or a noun.

When we struggled with Derrida in the spring of 2022, we didn’t know that a novel entitled Babel: An Arcane History would soon appear and become a global bestseller, drawing on similar imagery and turning translation issues into an issue of historical and political concern. Had I known, I would have put R. F. Kuang’s novel on our reading list, because it would have offered a perfect complement to our scholarly readings not only in its sophisticated treatment of language and translation issues, but also in its crafting of an alternate universe – its translation of the historical Oxford we know into a different world where language magic runs the world.

The fact that language runs and creates the world is nothing new, but in Kuang’s novel it takes on epic proportions. The setting is an alternate-reality 1830s England in the wake of the Opium wars, where the empire’s economic and colonial supremacy is driven by magical silver bars. Silver, in this storyworld, has the magic power to capture what is ‘lost in translation’ between languages. Silver bars inscribed with ‘match-pairs’ of words in different languages, with similar but not identical meaning, have a magic effect that help run various aspects of the empire, from trains to medicine. Oxford University hosts “Babel”, the Royal Institute of Translation, where students are trained to find such match-pairs and become scholars in the service of the empire. The full title of the novel –Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution – indicates that this set-up turns out to have serious consequences.

Needless to say, this is necessary reading for anyone who is interested in language, translation or worldmaking. I hope to get back to it in more detail as soon as I have time, but right now I just want to encourage everyone to read and enjoy!


Ingela Nilsson