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Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An…
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Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution (edition 2022)

by R. F. Kuang (Author)

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4,6881072,416 (4.03)147
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 a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping 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?… (more)
Member:bsheber
Title:Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution
Authors:R. F. Kuang (Author)
Info:HarperAudio (2022)
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Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution by R. F. Kuang

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English (101)  Finnish (1)  German (1)  All languages (103)
Showing 1-5 of 101 (next | show all)
The only positive part of this experience was reading the novel on my Kindle instead of buying the printed book – imagine carting around 500 pages plus the massive chip on the author’s shoulder! The negatives are almost as long as the footnotes. This is a nasty, bitter, patronising and oh so American bloated exercise in ego; I’m too old for BookTok, but I should know from previous experience to avoid a ‘Sunday Times bestseller’.

The history in which the fantasy plot is grounded is interesting and still important, but the author reduces colonialism and the British Empire to ‘white men are evil, people of colour are victims’ and mercilessly beats the reader over the head with her simplistic and modern perspective. She leans on actual historical events to the point of lecturing but also picks and chooses what information to include – for example, omitting that the United States also traded opium in China and inferring that the drug was banned in England while the British were ‘forcing opium on the Chinese at gunpoint.' Her take on history is literally black and white, with no shades of grey and no nuance.

The characters are equally flimsy, and the narrative is merely the 12” remix of ‘CoLoNiSeR!’ comments on X or, more likely considering the demographic, Tumblr. Robin, the half-Chinese main character, is little more than a more than a Watson figure used by the author to expound on her tedious and repetitive attack on British history. Ramy is Indian, Victoire is Afro-Caribbean and Letty is the coloniser in their midst (‘Proud, proper Letty with her stiff upper lip represented everything Ramy disdained about the English’). All they have in common – apart from Letty – is not being English. To fit in with the dystopian YA fiction vibe that makes this book so popular on TikTok and Tumblr, however, we are told that they are a found family : ‘By the time they’d finished their tea, they were almost in love with each other – not quite yet, because true love took time and memories, but as close to love as first impressions could take them.’ In fact, the whole novel is a masterclass in tell, don’t show, or instruction over implication. The exposition is often more absorbing than the plot, especially the etymology, but for the most part, the writing is more like a Wikipedia article (which requires sources) than fiction.

The plot veers between Dark Academia and a distorted revision of history, set in the 1830s but from a modern perspective – until very recently, ‘coloniser’ was the word for the people who lived in the colonies, but Kuang uses the term in the negative to mean ‘evil white people’ (the ‘British’ (English) are almost literally moustache-twirling pantomime villains). The dialogue is equally anachronistic, like a retelling of The Secret History but with corsets and carriages. If Kuang was smarter than she thinks, there could have been an element of dark humour and pastiche (‘DRUGGY MCDRUGGY WANTS HIS THUMBS IN CHINA’), but the author takes herself way too seriously.

I did appreciate the fantasy element of turning silver bullion into silver bars with magical properties, imbued with the meaning of words that can be lost in translation between languages, but Kuang doesn’t give the fantasy element enough space in between all the historical browbeating. And I disagree with the linguistic message of Babel – language isn’t a national treasury to be plundered by invading countries; new words and meanings are both coined and ‘borrowed’ and that’s how vocabulary grows and evolves. I was piqued into research by some of the topics raised in Kuang’s novel (the First Opium War, for instance), but found the reality far more fascinating than her reductive interpretation. ‘If you find any other inconsistencies, feel free to remind yourself this is a work of fiction,’ the author snarks in her introduction, and true, in a work of fiction, you can play with dates and inventions and have useless postgrads saving the world from the ‘frightening web of the colonial empire’, but this is a poor work of fiction, with characters I didn’t believe in or care about, excessive ranting, and a plot that boiled over from the author’s grudge against Oxford into a reworking of Les Miserables. ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | May 14, 2024 |
Fast in einem Rutsch durchgehört... Ganz großes Kino! ( )
  Katzenkindliest | Apr 23, 2024 |
" 'It's like I've known you forever...And that makes no sense, said Robin. 'I think', said Ramy, 'it's because when I speak, you listen...Because you're a good translator...That's just what translation is, I think. That's all that speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they're trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.'" p. 535

The book has a creative and interesting premise...that the nuances of translation can cause a force that, run through silver, can create magical reactions. These reactions are used in the "silver industrial revolution". The silver lining of machines and roads and homes creates forces that make life in England more livable. This of course comes with a price. Colonialism, poverty, and war. Translators like Ramy and Robin are needed because the more foreign the language is from English, the more powerful the force that is generated.

"Language was just difference. A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving through the world. No; a thousand worlds within one. And translation- a necessary endeavor, however futile, to move between them. "p. 535

For the plot alone I wanted to give the book 5 stars. Unfortunately, long explanatory footnotes were distracting, even though they did explain the etymology of words. I just wish the editor could have encouraged the author to eliminate the footnotes and simply incorporate short etymological explanations within the narrative.

For the first 80% of the story, the book was hard to put down. Set in London, Oxford, and Canton, four classmates at Babel form a deep friendship. Eventually, the four friends become disillusioned.

"And Oxford at night was still so serene, still seemed like a place where they were safe...The lights that shone through arched windows still promised warmth, old books, and hot tea within. still suggested an idyllic scholar's life, where ideas were abstract entertainments that could be bandied about without consequences. But the dream was shattered. That dream had always been founded on a lie. None of them had ever stood a chance of truly belonging here, for Oxford wanted only one kind of scholar, the kind born and bred to cycle through posts of power it had created for itself. Everyone else it chewed up and discarded." p. 431

Their awakening to the true motives behind the University's endeavors leads them to turn to underground means to combat injustice.

"Violence shows them how much we're willing to give up...violence is the only language they understand because their system of extraction is inherently violent. Violence shocks the system. And the system cannot survive the shock." p. 397

Their choice to use extreme measures leads to an unexpected climax. The translators now must make momentous decisions, "to see Oxford broken down to its foundations, wanted its fat golden opulence to slough way..." p. 471 These decisions will hopefully change the history of the country, perhaps avoiding the Opium wars..." but who in living history even understands their part in the tapestry?" p. 537
After that, the last 100 pages were laborious. I won't give details because of spoilers, but several chapters could have been eliminated. The ending seems to indicate that a sequel is possible.
Three stars for a thought-provoking tale of dark academia, political intrigue, disillusionment, friendship, and betrayal. ( )
  Chrissylou62 | Apr 11, 2024 |
This is an urban historical fantasy and dark academia set in Oxford in the Victorian era by Chinese author Rebecca F. Kuang. It features Robin Swift, a Chinese boy who is taken from his home in Canton to Oxford by an English professor to be trained as a translator. He soon makes friends with gregarious Indian student Ramy, Haitian Victoire, and with peaches-and-cream English girl Letty Price. The four of them form a tight unit against all their detractors and together they revel in the learning and the beauty of the languages. In the background is Babel itself, Oxford University’s Institute of Translation, where the scholars use their linguistic powers to fuel the silver magic that sustains the empire itself and its people.

Soon it becomes apparent that all of this has an ugly underbelly and that rampant colonial exploitation is sustained by the institute with its ruthless use of other nations, their knowledge and languages with no intention of sharing the rewards or power. This realisation pulls Robin towards Hermes, a mysterious underworld society fighting against colonial injustice. Will this fight save his mother country from the looming Opium Wars and destruction, or will it merely threaten all he has come to love and hold dear at Oxford?

I adored the fact that this book felt like an ode to linguistics and translation. I loved the setting, and the tight knit foursome. It felt very Harry Potteresque. I enjoyed the interplay between history and magic, and that the fantasy elements were subtle enough not to drown out the story and its themes, although I can imagine real fantasy readers might decry the limited world building. I felt the theme of colonial exploitation was an important one, and acknowledges the great harm England has caused many other countries and peoples.

On the other hand, I felt the characterisation was somewhat flat and simplistic. The characters were clearly demarcated either into the villain or the hero categories, and this seemingly along strict racial lines: pretty much all the white characters were villains and all the non white characters were heroes. In reality life is more complex and nuanced than this, and, irrespective of race, people do not purely fall into the “good” and “bad” categories, but some blend of both. The only character who seemed to escape this classification was probably Griffin, but even he only had one string to his bow.

The ending, well what can I say? The end part of the book certainly became much more melodramatic, and full of ranty, philosophical monologues. Is it a modern trend, post Game of Thrones, that we kill off our characters in an attempt for drama? In this case it was more of an anticlimax than a shock or drama. I wondered if Victoire was then set up to take the lead role in a sequel.

Overall this was a great read which would also make a wonderful movie. ( )
  mimbza | Apr 7, 2024 |
Excellent writing. A bit pretentious and slow in many parts. Don’t get the hype. ( )
  vickiv | Apr 2, 2024 |
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To Bennett, who is all the light and laughter in the world.
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By the time Professor Richard Lovell found his way through Canton's narrow alleys to the faded address in his diary, the boy was the only one in the house left alive.
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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 a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping 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?

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