Confound their language

Vintage GWR LMS poster of Christ Church, Oxford

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence:
An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
by Rebecca F Kuang.
Harper Voyager, 2022.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:4

The geographical centre of England. Dreaming spires. Ivory towers. But violence? Revolution? But then this is also subtitled “an arcane history” in the chronology of the University of Oxford, so we may take the violence and the revolt with a pinch of salt: such things as are described can never happen, we may assume. Or can they?

Babel is epic, in all senses of the word.  It’s a story, sure enough, from the Greek ἔπος, epos, a speech, a song, demonstrating its love of language and literature; it’s composed to be on a grand scale, ranging to and fro from Guangzhou to Oxford and covering many years; it’s also epic in the modern sense of awesome, impressing through its ambition and sheer imaginative creativity; and it’s also epic in that it’s over five hundred pages long, which for some may be too much and for others deliciously intense.

In focusing on a quartet of language students in the 1830s it encourages us – successfully, I think – to invest in their personal and collective histories. But it also invites us to contemplate ethics, colonialism, racism, loyalty, and privilege; and above all we are asked to consider the necessity of violence in attempting to break the obduracy of those who rule while disregarding the needs of all in society.

‘Tower of Babel’ by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.


Robin Swift, plucked as a child from a cholera pandemic in Guangzhou and brought to England by Professor Lovell, remains in the dark about his origins and his upbringing in what was then known as Canton, and why he’s somehow proficient in British English as well as Cantonese. Who is this professor, and how and why is he so interested in this boy with mixed ethnicity? Robin – who has chosen his English name from a combination of a nursery rhyme and the author of Gulliver’s Travels – is schooled in Classical Latin and Greek in Hampstead, but he’s as yet unaware that he’s being prepared for an education at Oxford and a career as a translator serving the needs of the British Empire.

But this is no ordinary history. Kuang’s premise is that England has gained its preeminence through Oxford language scholars becoming proficient in instilling power into bars of silver by using so-called match-pairs of words from different languages; and that such energised silver – embedded in buildings, in transport and in weapons – is the prime reason for the British Empire proving more successful than its European rivals in spreading its tentacles around the world. Tentacles that extort and extract the commodities it needs, regardless of the cost to the nations and societies it exploits.

As a student at the Royal Institute of Translation Robin meets new friends: Ramy from India; Victoire some of whose roots lie in Haiti; and Letty, whose proficiency in acquiring languages fitted her more for study than her wastrel brother. Their scholarship bursaries give them access to the Institute, a veritable tower of Babel standing between the Radcliffe Camera and Exeter College; and it’s here they learn the arcane mysteries that will reveal the roots of British colonial power and how it’s maintained.

I loved this book – for its individuals, its intensity, it’s imaginative scope, its love of etymology and of hermeneutics, and its rage. As someone with Anglo-Indian roots, whose forebears went out to govern and administer the subcontinent, and who spent his formative years in Hong Kong – a territory, note, ceded to the British as a direct result of the Opium Wars that arose after the end of this fictive narrative – I have an inkling of where Kuang is coming from: a Chinese American, born in Guangzhou, she’ll be well aware of Britain’s pernicious colonial legacy abroad and, having done two Masters (in Cambridge as well as Oxford) in the aftermath of Brexit, she’ll have had first-hand experience of the chasms in British society between the haves and the have-nots.

So, if the reader can accept – as I can – the occasional anachronistic phrasing and neologisms (“backup”, anyone?) it only remains to note the essence of how the author regards the art of translation, repeating the words of Robin’s friend Ramy.

“That’s what translation is, I think. That’s all 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.”

33: 535

18 thoughts on “Confound their language

    1. I think you’d find this interesting at the very least, Helen – Kuang has done her research and married a lot of real history with her arcane history, even though her general thrust will annoy any anti-woke critics out there!

      And it’s a compelling narrative with ebbs and flows that kept me riveted over many chapters.


    1. It’s not perfect, Bart, I have the odd slight niggle, but it’s magnificent in its conception and fiercely opinionated. Its metaphor of being silver-tongued is brilliantly played out

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s been a buzz about this for a while but I was particularly drawn to the premise of the novel and especially attracted by the dust jacket illustration, which is splendid and has a hint of His Dark Materials about it. Definitely worth being tempted I think, Lily!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries, Liz. It’s definitely a critique of, especially, British ruthlessness and greed in expanding its empire to obscenely maximise its profits, and highlights how neither foreign nor British workers were spared the rapaciousness of the ruling classes. The magical realist element – the silver bars – are symbolic not only of the silver-tongued Oxford linguists who enable them but also of the wealth accruing to England which the mercantile class are desperate to deny their international rivals.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s so much to this novel, much more than I could justifiably fit into a review, Bronwen. For example the four students fit the classical and medieval theory of the four humours: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm in a body should be in balance within a body, goes the theory, else an excess of any one would make an individual sanguine, choleric, melancholic, or phlegmatic, and this seems to be the case with the four students who each could be said to represent one of the humours.

      Babel is definitely an ideas novel but the reader can easily ignore them all and just enjoy the thriller aspect. Have I tempted you even more?! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I suspect the author was drawing a quiet parallel with the four students, one from China, another from India, one with Afro-Caribbean heritage and the final one from the minor English gentry.

          Liked by 1 person

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