By Sahana C.
R.F. Kuang wrote her first novel at the age of 19, during a gap year from Georgetown. After graduating, she became a Marshall Scholar, studying at both Cambridge and Oxford University, graduating with a Master’s in Philosophy and a Master’s in Science, respectively. She’s currently in the midst of pursuing her PhD at Yale. R.F. Kuang knows a thing or two about what it means to be entrenched in higher education.
Babel: An Arcane History is about a love affair with academia, and what that means as a person of color. For POC within institutions like Oxford, ones that have histories and wealth based in colonialism, pursuing higher education can feel like an act of betrayal, where the choice is between building a future and acknowledging the crimes and pain of the past. The novel juxtaposes this internal conflict with a parallel betrayal that ties together the rest of the book: the theory that every act of translation is an act of betrayal.
It is the 1800s and Robin Swift, our protagonist, is taken from China by a professor, one who works in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, known colloquially as Babel. He’s thrilled to be invited to the Royal Institute, even more excited to be a Babbler, and intensely enamored of his cohort, his classes, and the campus. Despite all of the racism, discrimination, and academic pressure, Robin loves his work. He loves being a translator, and he loves the access to silver-working – where an act of translation inscribed on a silver bar produces magical effect. Robin and his cohort (Ramy, from Calcutta, Victoire, from Haiti but raised in France, and Letty, from England, but a woman in a time where her family could not accept that she wanted to study) work tirelessly to learn and advance in their skills of translation. They learn about the ways that translating fails: ciao means hello, yes, but hello doesn’t fully encapsulate the meaning ciao conveys, as it can also be a farewell. There is inherently an incongruence here – either a translator can be faithful to the text or to the intention of the text, but it can scarcely ever do both. Regardless, a choice must be made; regardless, a betrayal occurs. Robin is thrilled to be a part of the Royal Academy, but the idea of this betrayal lingers.
But throughout his time, Robin has concerns that Babel might not be as utopian as it seems. The Royal Institute’s mission to study foreign languages empowers the British Empire and aids them in their quest to colonize the world. The more Robin and his friends learn, the more they wonder if all this betrayal is worth it, and if they can manage to ignore all the ways their work could be used against people like them, despite the Royal Institute’s claims that Babblers are all that they are.
I was not expecting to fall as madly in love with this book as I did, partially because the novel takes on the physical dimensions of a literal brick, and partially because it was recommended to me on Booktok, and I’ve learned to be wary. But I devoured this book, as complex as it is. The concepts of language, linguistics, and translation are woven so deftly, and the debate on how to push back against colonialism is nuanced and careful. R.F. Kuang never tells her reader what to think; she just introduces critical concepts through the lens of dark academia, and asks the reader to decide: can we disrupt systems of colonialism and colonial thought through work, collective action, and communication, or is violence necessary to dismantle the systems put in place? R.F. Kuang doesn’t claim to know, and she’s firmly entrenched in academia herself. But through Babel, she is asking the questions. Is there ever a “right” thing to betray?
Babel: An Arcane History is available in print, ebook, and eaudiobook.
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. They enjoy adding books to their “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for them already.