Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence
An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
By Jeff Beatty
Many of my colleagues in the localization industry tell me they struggle to get into fiction. I’ve felt the same way. In 2022, I embarked on a fiction-reading journey, conditioning myself to read more fiction. At the time, I focused mainly on thrillers and classic sci-fi novels — and now, I’m hooked! Reading fiction has helped me to enhance my creativity and ability to think outside of my own biases, by suspending my disbelief and thinking more abstractly.
Not to mention, it’s also helped me tell better stories and communicate value and impact — a skill that’s no doubt been useful for me in my line of work (and probably yours too!). If you want to get into fiction and work in localization, I’ve got the perfect book for you: Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang.
This book is a captivating and enlightening exploration of the complexities of language and translation. I found this book to be particularly engaging as it paints a picture of an idyllic world, where translators hold the power to move empires, industry, and more!
Set in the 19th century, Babel fuses elements of historical fiction with fantasy, focusing on the British Empire’s global trade and territorial expansion. The key to the empire’s success rests not in the hands of kings and conquerors though — in Babel, it’s linguists who are responsible for the British Empire’s accumulation of such a vast domain.
This is where those fantasy elements come in: Kuang’s Babel takes place in a world wherein the British Empire has invented a form of alchemy that allows skilled linguists to imbue bars of silver with special powers, simply by engraving words from multiple languages into them.
As an example: A silver bar with the term meaning “speed” in multiple languages will cause a ship to naturally cut through the sea with greater speed than other ships in its class. The world runs on these silver bars, as does the successful expansion of the British Empire and its cultural conquest of the world. Without spoiling too much, this novel focuses on what happens when those translators revolt against the empire.
Kuang’s novel zeroes in on Robin, a translator from Canton (modern-day Guangdong) who trains as a translator at the Babel school in Oxford after his mother’s death. He’s recruited to aid in the British trade and cultural expansion in the region — through a series of tragic events, Robin finds himself in a tug-of-war between the golden handcuffs of the British Empire and his loyalty to his Cantonese roots.
One of the most striking aspects of Babel is how Kuang portrays translation as a deeply human endeavor, intertwining complex translation theory with simple reminders of the creative and human element of the activity. In one particularly poignant passage, the novel describes translation as being “more than just understanding the words. It’s about understanding the people and cultures that those words come from.”
This sentiment should, of course, ring true for any localization professional, as we are often tasked with not only deciphering the meaning of a text but also conveying the nuances of culture and context.
Throughout the book, we also see the dark side of translation, when certain characters use it as a way to manipulate others and maintain their own cultural and geopolitical dominance. “To control the language is to control the people who speak it,” as Kuang writes. This theme is particularly relevant in today’s world, where language is often used as a weapon in politics and diplomacy.
Throughout the book, Kuang weaves together a variety of languages and linguistic traditions, creating a rich and diverse world. I was impressed by the attention to detail and the way in which Kuang elegantly weaves various elements of translation theory and techniques in with a digestible and entertaining story.
Overall, Babel is a compelling and thought-provoking read that ought to appeal to anyone working in the language services industry. Although the work we undertake to bridge linguistic and cultural divides is highly important, it’s often challenging to bring visibility to it from outside of the industry bubble.
This book provides a refreshing view of the role of the translator and the impact and visibility of their work on the world that would leave any member of the language services industry with a strong sense of pride and fulfillment in being “seen” for the work we do. Kuang’s writing is engaging and immersive, and her attention to linguistic detail is impressive. To put it simply: Babel is a must-read for localization professionals.
Jeff Beatty is executive director of product localization at The Walt Disney Company and an avid fiction reader. He enjoys reading everything from magical realism to sci-fi and thrillers.