Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is a 2022 novel by R. F. Kuang. It debuted at the first spot on the New York Times bestseller list in September, 2022, and has since been nominated for multiple awards, such as Blackwell’s Books of the Year for Fiction in 2022, the Astounding Award, the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, and the World Fantasy Awards.
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence is a historical fiction novel takes place in an alternate version of Victorian England, where translators hold the keys to the British Empire. The novel follows Robin Swift from his earliest childhood in China, through his time at Babel, as the Royal Institute of Translation is called in the novel. Readers also witness Swift’s jaunt from the hope that translation is a way to bring people together, to the terrible realization that, in this colonial framework, and following the topic Traduttore, traditore –“Translator, traitor”-, an act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
In a fantastic setting, the novel shines a light on the oppressive British empire and its use of language and translation as a dominating tool.
The main character of the story, Robin Swift, is an orphan from Canton, China. He is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. After receiving training in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, Robin eventually enrolls in the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, popularly known as Babel. At Babel, Robin learns how to use magical silver bars to make meanings that have been lost in translation. Robin is stuck between the mysterious Hermes Society and Babel. The Hermes Society wants to destroy the silver trade that helps the British Empire. Robin must decide how to use his knowledge and power to bring down Babel as he faces student revolts, colonialism, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
The novel shines a light on the oppressive British empire and its use of language and translation as a dominating tool. Through this lens, the reader is invited to explore the concept of revolution and what is required of people in order to truly engender it. The characters’ conversations and debates drive the plot forward, as they grapple with student revolutions, colonial resistance and the use of language and translation.
A masterfully researched and wholly impressive deep dive into linguistics and politics, Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution explores the many complexities of the British empire and its effects on colonized countries.
Here is an interview with the author, who describes the genre of her novel as “historical dark academia”:
With its engaging characters, intricate plot and complex themes, the novel is an enthralling and thought-provoking read. It is a stark reminder of the power of language, and the importance of standing up for what is right.
R. F. Kuang is the author of The Poppy War trilogy, which includes The Poppy War (2018), The Dragon Republic (2019), and The Burning God (2020). The books were inspired by Chinese history and mythology, and follow the story of an orphan from a rural village who is granted special powers and called to fight for her country. The trilogy explores themes of pain, sacrifice, vengeance, and trauma, as well as colonialism and the violence of war. However, Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence… is a standalone book.