As someone who isn’t on the same intelligence level of R.F. Kuang, who humbly reads her books and doesn’t see the multiple sides of the polyhedron that’s her story, I read the story and hours after putting down the book, I can’t help but to think about it. Spoilers ahead, so please proceed with caution!
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1828. 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?
Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
It’s going to be quite difficult for me to write this review without spoilers, but I’m going to try. I don’t want to spoil anything especially in this story because there’s so much nuance, complexity, and deep introspection once you’re done. It’s honestly the kind of book you want to read on your own and make your own opinion on because the subjects it brings up are meant for deeper thinking.
Babel is two stories melded into one. The first is the young academic with the opportunity to learn at Oxford, this prestigious school that’s hundreds of years old and taught the brightest people in the world. You follow Robin Swift from his beginnings in China through his entire time at Oxford and the events that take place there. There’s so much romanticized in the world of Babel that really gives you the academia vibe. I honestly imagined myself in the gown running across campus in order to make it to class. The rainy days spent in the library poring over books and theories. I was sitting with Ramy, Letty, and Victoire as they ate day-old scones with tea and discussing the finer points of translation. And most of this book is about translation, which was my favorite part. Kuang does not skimp on the study of language, its translation, and even the magical elements that translation brings. She’s even able to capture the political and economic needs for translation. I loved this so much. I always find etymology and language to be such an fascinating subject and seeing it shared here in such a big way just gave me a level of excitement for the academic pursuit. It’s extremely well researched with various languages I know Kuang can’t speak herself, but shows how deeply ingrained language is and means to culture and people.
This book was more an alternate history than a fantasy, but the story was still brilliantly developed. Kuang is an excellent world-builder and through her descriptions you’re able to fall deeply into this world and imagine yourself in it. I loved that Kuang builds this idyllic version of student life and makes her readers fall so madly in love with the concept, but you also get a really big dose of reality because this is R.F. Kuang and she doesn’t take things lightly.
The second story is where the rage comes in. Robin Swift may have this wonderful opportunity to study and learn at Oxford, but it wasn’t without its difficulties. He was stolen from China right after his mother dies. He’s forced to change his name to something more English-friendly erasing his connection with his homeland. He’s victim to child abuse from his guardian and scrutinized as some sort of science experiment from the other white students. He’s also one of four students that weren’t both white and male going to Oxford. The world Robin becomes a part of turns him and his friends into the “other.” It was the fuel to the fire that leads to their rebellion. It was the dark underbelly of academia where regardless of the prestige, the opportunity, and the first-rate education they’re receiving, it will never make them a part of this world and it will never fully accept or respect them as the scholars they are.
And that’s a sentiment I can understand and have been forced to feel. It’s already difficult to understand where you belong. I’ve felt straddled between being Asian and being American my entire life. While most of the time I’ve let my anger go, it’s always the little jabs that come your way from strangers, from friends, from work colleagues that brings back those feelings. It’s a frustrating feeling and when things become more dire for the young translation students at Babel, that’s when the violence comes in. I think the most important component to keep in mind when reading this book is the subtitle: Babel, or the necessity of violence. Because violence is a huge part of this story. From the abuse Robin goes through as a child to the final stand at the tower of Babel, violence threads its way through these characters like a cancer to the point where the youthful naivete of scholarly pursuits becomes a battlefield of resistance and a desire for acceptance.
It’s such an interesting topic to explore and while I think the final moments of this story took that narrative to the most extreme level, you really get an idea of the anger that fuels their rebellion. You understand why they took it so far and why sometimes you need to go to the extremes in order to make a statement.
I think the brilliance of this book is that Kuang presents you both sides of the same coin; the story of a young academic seeking knowledge at a prestigious school and the story of a young academic who finally sees the level of racism, classism, and exploitation the school takes from him. However, I wish I saw more of Robin’s personal struggle throughout the story. I felt like there was a small amount in the beginning, but then at one point it’s a full 180 and he’s leading a rebellion he didn’t want to be a part of in the first place. I don’t blame him for the violence or even the extreme measures that he takes, but I wish we dived deeper into that dichotomy instead of falling head first in the pursuit for justice.
Overall, this immersive story will keep you reading. You might be compelled by the translation discussions, or you might be compelled by the rebellion of these students, but there is a little bit of everything for everyone and if you’re not thinking about the bigger themes of the story after putting the book down, then you might have missed the entire point. I had some issues with the character development and some of the plot either moved too quickly or stagnated at a snail’s pace, but it was truly a masterful book that isn’t subtle and will make you hurt and wonder at the same time. I commend R.F. Kuang for this incredible endeavor. This truly is a feather in her writing cap and brings to light some truly interesting themes in an understandable way.