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

A research school in early languages and digital philology has been awarded funding from The Swedish Research Council (2023–2027), hosted by the Faculty of Languages at Uppsala University and coordinated by Ingela Nilsson. The profile of the research school partly overlaps with the interests of Retracing Connections and thus opens for fruitful collaboration over the coming years.

The aim of the research school DigPhil is to create a strong and state-of-the-art doctoral research environment for PhD students in early languages in Sweden. In light of recent developments in digital philology and Digital Humanities at large, many of the comparatively small research units for ancient and medieval languages (ranging from Greek and Latin to various medieval and early modern languages) are struggling to keep a sound balance between traditional methods and modern developments. The proposed research school would allow an efficient coordination of competences and resources, so that Sweden will equip PhD students in early languages with relevant tools to work as modern philologists. These tools include a better understanding of the philological tradition and its relation to Comparative Literature and Linguistics, but also a general competence in Digital Humanities that enables not only a successful career in digital philology, but also interdisciplinary collaboration with computational linguists and computer scientists. Such a development would stop the current trend towards isolation and, on the contrary, help put philology back into the Humanities and in touch with the Social Sciences.

Have you come across Siri the Viking girl yet? If you have, you can now look forward to a fourth book and her return to Constantinople. If you haven’t yet made her acquaintance, you have something to look forward to! Siri is a feisty Pippi Longstocking kind of girl, presented in words and images that are reminiscent of Asterix – as clever as entertaining.

The next Siri book will appear by the end of April and is titled Calamity in Constantinople (Kalabalik i Konstantinopel). I recently met with her creators Patric Nyström and Per Demervall in Istanbul, where the Turkish translation was launched in early November, and took the opportunity to ask some questions about characterization and world-making.

Ingela: Many things have happened since 2016, when I chanced upon Siri in Dagens ETC, bought the first book and contacted you for an interview. Is it possible to describe briefly what the journey has been like for you and Siri since then?

Patric & Per: It’s actually been staggering, but also slow, partly because of the deplorable Covid pandemic. But we’ve been pegging away with several books so now if feels as if more and more people know about Siri.
Then we have to say that Siri and the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul really have found each other in a fantastic way – and of course also the people behind Siri and the institute.

Ingela: Speaking of which: the translation of the first two books into Turkish, as well as Siri’s participation in the digital exhibition “Nordic Tales, Byzantine Paths”, feels rather unexpected and exciting. What was it like to take Siri into a Turkish language environment?

Patric & Per: We felt confident all along that the interplay between word and image would work also in another language. Our hope is that the Turkish children will learn not only a part of their history, but also develop their own reading habits and language through the books and the exhibition.

Ingela: Siri started out by travelling to Miklagård/Constantinople in the first book. She has since then been visited by her friend Zack in the North (second book) and travelled to France to see Paris (third book), but I understand that she is now going to return to Constantinople. Why? And can you reveal anything about what will happen to her this time?

Patric: I felt it was time for Zack to visit his home in Constantinople again. I wanted to show his parents and the cityscape in more detail this time.
I have based Zack’s dad on Michael III, the youngest son of Emperor Theophilos. I made Eudokia Ingerina, Michael’s mistress, into Zack’s mom.
I thought this would give an obscure enough background to our little hero. I also invented a new villain, which was a bit scary when you’re used to Ivar and Grym.
This book is the most difficult I have written so far, since I had so many ideas and threads. But now I hope that they have all resulted in an entertaining story about a ring that brings luck to the emperor and the people and how it gets stolen by our new villain.

Ingela: You have actually created an entire world together in words and images – a historical world, but at the same time a world of its own and an imaginary version of what you have seen and read. Perhaps it’s a silly question, but how does this co-creative process come about?

Patric: It really is joint work. I write my manuscript based on what I have read during my research for a new book. In the manuscript I describe environments, monuments and buildings to Per, but also the characters that the children encounter. I try to incorporate historical events in order to infuse some more life into my stories. For example, the monk Ansgar lost almost 40 books to pirates on his first trip to Birka and I associated this with an idea I had about the Viking myth of the source of wisdom: that it could contain books. These thoughts eventually led to Mimir’s Well, the second book about Siri and Zack.

Per: Wow! That’s a question that demands a long digression! 🙂 But I will try to offer a short version.

When Patric has written his first draft, we go through it first individually and then together. At this point we’re brainstorming ideas and come up with all sorts of follies. When that’s done, Patric writes up the manuscript, which I then take and break it down into sketches of comic pages. We try to work in parallel as much as possible. I look up the environments and buildings which are to be recreated, the uniforms of guards and soldiers and so on.

When it comes to characters, it’s important to ‘build’ the persons based on their characteristics. In the forthcoming book, there is a sleazy advisor who has an assistant by his side. They have to be in sync, so there’s quite a bit of sketch work before I can feel that they are right. Of course, Patric also needs to feel that they are right for his manuscript. When it comes to buildings there is much material to draw on. I try to make my own reconstructions based on that material, so that the series has its own profile. But the most important is that image and text unite beautifully, which we think they do.

Ingela: Finally, there are rumours about a film adaptation – can you say anything about that? Is Siri going to Hollywood?

Per: That’s correct, there’s a great interest. We have a big film producer, a director and an animation company ready to take on Siri. But to launch Siri as an animated film is a long process. We have begun that journey and hope we will make it all the way.

As we are wrapping up, I come to think of one more question that I need to ask – something I’ve been wondering about when reading, but feel a little embarrassed to ask.

Ingela: I just realized I have one last question, if you have time. It’s not meant to be a snobbish academic question, I’m seriously curious: which language do you think that Siri speaks with Zack and other people she meets on her travels? Or is there a language in her world that goes beyond our ideas of languages bound to specific places?


Per: Ha-ha. That one is for Patric.

Patric: Thanks for the question 🙂 Of course, the complicated answer is that Siri and Zack speak Old Norse, because Zack grew up surrounded by his dad’s Varangian guards. When they’re in Paris they get around with Old Norse too. When it comes to Greek in Constantinople, I guess Zack interprets for Siri, but that would be very tedious to include in the books!
It is, in fact, likely that in the wonderful world of comics everyone speaks the same language, maybe thanks to the fact that they all have a Babel Fish behind their ears.*

This answer is indeed symptomatic of Siri and her creators: a combination of learning and pop culture, serious craft and a great sense of humour. Obviously, in the wonderful world of not only comics and fantasy, but also medieval storytelling, language is rarely an issue – characters and plots transgress such boundaries and that’s how storyworlds travel, effortlessly, through time and space.

Ingela Nilsson

* For those of you who are not familiar with the Babel Fish, check out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – according to Patric “the best novel ever”.

The Swedish Institute at Athens and the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul present the Gustav Karlsson Lecture on Byzantine Culture and Literature, given by Stratis Papioannou (University of Crete & Swedish Institute at Athens), on the topic of Readerly Pleasures in Byzantium

The lecture takes place on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, at 19h (Athens time), at the Swedish Institute at Athens, Mitseon 9, and via zoom link. To participate either way, please register