Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution

eBook, 560 pages

Published Aug. 22, 2022 by Harper Voyager.

Copied ISBN!

View on OpenLibrary

View on Inventaire

4 stars (8 reviews)

From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British empire.

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 for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

For Robin, Oxford is …

1 edition

Ends with a bang!

4 stars

What initially starts off as an imperfect blend of Tart's The Secret History and a low fantasy setting akin to Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell slowly shifts to its actual subject: colonialism. Seen through the lens, not of white saviours nor the faraway colonial subjects, but of it's unique product: people of both worlds, forcefully transplanted, with all the twisted allegiances that come with it. The last third act of the book explodes into a study about struggle and violence, the interwoven working of class and empire, in a way that is seldomly seen in (Western) fiction literature and for this fact alone this book deserves praise and commendation.

Some Promise, But Disappointing (like me!)

2 stars

I really wanted to like this. And I did until just after Robin gets into Oxford. Maybe it’s because so much resonated with my own life and studies, I didn’t need to be lectured to as much as he did—I get it, girl. My frustration may just be disappointment in my younger self.

What is going on with editors these days? It did NOT need to be this long. The magical system rooted in translation was pretty cool. Dark Academia fails me again.

Colonialism is, in fact, bad

5 stars

R. F. Kuang's Babel is actually much more than an indictment of colonialism, although it performs that job magnificently. Novels abound on the struggles of immigrants from the Global South once they have reached the supposed land of the free; their struggle to fit in, their identity crises, and their disillusionment with what the West has to offer.

Babel is focused on essentially a 1830s version of Western liberal arts education. Four students in Oxford struggle to balance their desperate eagerness to learn and take advantage of the enormous resources at their disposal, with the imperialist ends that their skills are put toward.

Where Kuang departs from most is by asserting that you can never actually strike that balance - and, in fact, that you should not. Where she truly elevates beyond almost every other book on the subject is by charting an actual path of unambiguous resistance for the …

A postcolonial, antiracist Harry Potter

4 stars

Kuang's story surprises. This coming-of-age (and coming-of-revolution) story introduces us to a world where the the 19th-century Industrial Revolution is made possible not by steam and worker oppression but by the magical powers of translation and colonial exploitation. The experiences of the protagonist, a Cantonese boy that adopts the English name Robin Swift, lead us to an imagined Oxford that is as intriguing as Hogwarts but that has sins that Kuang not only does not whitewash, but makes the centerpiece of her novel. The historical notes and especially the etymological explanations are fascinating, if occasionally pedantic. Once you get your head around this world and how it works, you'll want to hang on to the end to see how a postcolonial critique during the height of the British Empire can possibly turn out.

Kääntäjät kolonialismia vastaan

3 stars

Nautin kovasti R. F. Kuangin Poppy War -trilogiasta, ja Babel on odottanut jo jonkin aikaa hyllyssä lukemista.

Ensi alkuun tuntui, että odotukset täyttyivät. Tapani mukaan en lukenut kirjasta edes takakantta, joten koko kirjan lähtökohta tuli yllätyksenä. Ajatus käännösten merkityseroista maailmaa pyörittävänä käyttövoimana oli toisaalta vitsikäs mutta toisaalta antoi vallan käyttökelpoisen tavan käsitellä kolonialistista yhteiskuntaa. Kuangin kerronta vei tarinaa eteenpäin kuin juna.

Jossain vaiheessa jännite kuitenkin katosi. Kirja oli alusta loppuun sujuvaa luettavaa, mutta viimeinen kolmannes on lähinnä loppukliimaksin odottamista, jossa tuntuu, että mitään merkittävää ei tapahdu. Tämä ei tietenkään pidä paikkaansa - kyllähän kirjassa tapahtuu, paljonkin, mutta tunteet, joita lukiessa voisi kuvitella heräävän, jäävät syttymättä.

Lopussa hiukan pedataan siihen suuntaan, että kirjalle voisi tulla myös jatkoa, mutta Kuang on ilmeisesti ilmoittanut, että toista kirjaa ei ole luvassa. Yllä kirjoittamastani huolimatta se ehkä hivenen harmittaa.

Review of 'Babel' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

This memorable novel is both ingeniously creative and importantly timely in its message. R.F. Kuang weaves together a story that injects magical realism into a novel that is both historical and revisionist. That is, this is a story that asks us to imagine the road not taken at a certain time in history, and the ethics of the decisions of those in power–and question how and why such power came to be, in the first place.

I felt that the characters were well-developed and realistically complex, making it possible for the reader to feel the emotion in their stories. The plot was also well crafted and paced.

Instead of summarizing the plot, I want to simply recommend this novel, which I knew nothing about before I started reading. Part of the magic, for me, was simply reading on to discover the shape of the world as it is created by …

Review of 'Babel' on 'Goodreads'

4 stars

It was good, really good. The characters were interesting and three dimensional and enjoyable, the setting and plot was engaging and high stakes, and the translation lectures were tailor made for language nerds like me.

However, don’t do like I did and go into this expecting a fantasy novel. This is, mostly, historical fiction with a magic system reskinning technological progress in Victorian England.

This is not a knock on it, though, saying that it’s superfluous; it has a very interesting, if specific effect on the reader’s relationship with the world. It moves all of the varied goods and services that imperial Britain used to maintain power over their colonies into one spot and one profession: Oxford translators. As I see it, the silver magic system mostly exists to move the political center of Britain into this area. And I enjoyed it if only for this facet, if not for …

Good, but not without flaws

4 stars

Some frustration with footnotes (both spotting the asterix and how Kuang was using them - particularly early on - but there was a moment of clarity later on… but then Chapter 31 happened?!?) and that the queer characters were killed off and never able to tell each other they were head-over-heels (and not in a tragedy style way either)… but otherwise really good.

I love translation and the thought that goes into it - much of which is covered here.