‘Babel’: book review

Ever had a feeling that you are a perfect reader (or target audience) of the book in your hands? This is exactly what happened when I started reading ‘Babel: An Arcane History‘ written by R.F. Kuang. The full title of the book is “Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution”, which in a sense beautifully highlights some ideas from the book (and I am not talking about the themes but the phrasing as well). I’d personally stick to the former shorter version of the title as it does not reveal much and reflect just the right amount keeping the enigma of the text.

Let’s see…

  • Translation – yes, my major degree is philology but my minor was in translation (the second diploma I never used anywhere).
  • The esthetics of academia (dark, I guess?) – yes, please. Study hard, study smart, study, study!
  • What languages, again? English – yay, the language of my daily life. Latin – one year of a rather intensive course – tick. Chinese – the language I hated most, the language I developed a strong love for it once I happened to learn a bit more about it. My love-hate relationship and working in China definitely gave me enough to catch the references – another box ticked.
  • Shall we talk about etymology in detail? I’d love to!
    Proto-indo-european language, sensitive age of language acquisition, connotations, lexical lacunae, culture through language and vice versa… looks like a snapshot of A-level English course topics. Do not forget the elephant in the room: linguistic imperialism, language dominance and the price to be paid to reach that dominance.
  • Motherland, the sense of belonging (and not belonging to any community): these are the topics every expat contemplates. It is very likely that at some point the culture you left becomes too far and the new culture is not fully acquired (and most likely never will be).

The book can be nicely divided into three logical parts. First of all, the characters need to be brought up in the right environment and collected in one place. Next, the stage of maturity and looking around. Time to ask big questions and get no answers. Stage three: start acting (out) and take control of the situation in your hands.

Some quotes

“Nice comes from the Latin word for “stupid”,’ said Griffin. ‘We do not want to be nice.”

“A lie was not a lie if it was never uttered; questions that were never asked did not need answers. They would both remain perfectly content to linger in the liminal, endless space between truth and denial.”

“That’s the beauty of learning a new language. It should feel like an enormous undertaking. It ought to intimidate you. It makes you appreciate the complexity of the ones you know already.”

“That’s just 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.”

“Language was just difference. A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving through the world. No; a thousand worlds within one.”