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Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution

Tekijä: R.F. Kuang

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioMaininnat
4,5351042,518 (4.03)147
From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History? and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British empire. Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal. 1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he'll enroll in Oxford University's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation-also known as Babel. Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working- the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars- has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire's quest for colonization. For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide... Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?… (lisätietoja)
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Näyttää 1-5 (yhteensä 101) (seuraava | näytä kaikki)
" 'It's like I've known you forever...And that makes no sense, said Robin. 'I think', said Ramy, 'it's because when I speak, you listen...Because you're a good translator...That's just what translation is, I think. That's all that 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.'" p. 535

The book has a creative and interesting premise...that the nuances of translation can cause a force that, run through silver, can create magical reactions. These reactions are used in the "silver industrial revolution". The silver lining of machines and roads and homes creates forces that make life in England more livable. This of course comes with a price. Colonialism, poverty, and war. Translators like Ramy and Robin are needed because the more foreign the language is from English, the more powerful the force that is generated.

"Language was just difference. A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving through the world. No; a thousand worlds within one. And translation- a necessary endeavor, however futile, to move between them. "p. 535

For the plot alone I wanted to give the book 5 stars. Unfortunately, long explanatory footnotes were distracting, even though they did explain the etymology of words. I just wish the editor could have encouraged the author to eliminate the footnotes and simply incorporate short etymological explanations within the narrative.

For the first 80% of the story, the book was hard to put down. Set in London, Oxford, and Canton, four classmates at Babel form a deep friendship. Eventually, the four friends become disillusioned.

"And Oxford at night was still so serene, still seemed like a place where they were safe...The lights that shone through arched windows still promised warmth, old books, and hot tea within. still suggested an idyllic scholar's life, where ideas were abstract entertainments that could be bandied about without consequences. But the dream was shattered. That dream had always been founded on a lie. None of them had ever stood a chance of truly belonging here, for Oxford wanted only one kind of scholar, the kind born and bred to cycle through posts of power it had created for itself. Everyone else it chewed up and discarded." p. 431

Their awakening to the true motives behind the University's endeavors leads them to turn to underground means to combat injustice.

"Violence shows them how much we're willing to give up...violence is the only language they understand because their system of extraction is inherently violent. Violence shocks the system. And the system cannot survive the shock." p. 397

Their choice to use extreme measures leads to an unexpected climax. The translators now must make momentous decisions, "to see Oxford broken down to its foundations, wanted its fat golden opulence to slough way..." p. 471 These decisions will hopefully change the history of the country, perhaps avoiding the Opium wars..." but who in living history even understands their part in the tapestry?" p. 537
After that, the last 100 pages were laborious. I won't give details because of spoilers, but several chapters could have been eliminated. The ending seems to indicate that a sequel is possible.
Three stars for a thought-provoking tale of dark academia, political intrigue, disillusionment, friendship, and betrayal. ( )
  Chrissylou62 | Apr 11, 2024 |
This is an urban historical fantasy and dark academia set in Oxford in the Victorian era by Chinese author Rebecca F. Kuang. It features Robin Swift, a Chinese boy who is taken from his home in Canton to Oxford by an English professor to be trained as a translator. He soon makes friends with gregarious Indian student Ramy, Haitian Victoire, and with peaches-and-cream English girl Letty Price. The four of them form a tight unit against all their detractors and together they revel in the learning and the beauty of the languages. In the background is Babel itself, Oxford University’s Institute of Translation, where the scholars use their linguistic powers to fuel the silver magic that sustains the empire itself and its people.

Soon it becomes apparent that all of this has an ugly underbelly and that rampant colonial exploitation is sustained by the institute with its ruthless use of other nations, their knowledge and languages with no intention of sharing the rewards or power. This realisation pulls Robin towards Hermes, a mysterious underworld society fighting against colonial injustice. Will this fight save his mother country from the looming Opium Wars and destruction, or will it merely threaten all he has come to love and hold dear at Oxford?

I adored the fact that this book felt like an ode to linguistics and translation. I loved the setting, and the tight knit foursome. It felt very Harry Potteresque. I enjoyed the interplay between history and magic, and that the fantasy elements were subtle enough not to drown out the story and its themes, although I can imagine real fantasy readers might decry the limited world building. I felt the theme of colonial exploitation was an important one, and acknowledges the great harm England has caused many other countries and peoples.

On the other hand, I felt the characterisation was somewhat flat and simplistic. The characters were clearly demarcated either into the villain or the hero categories, and this seemingly along strict racial lines: pretty much all the white characters were villains and all the non white characters were heroes. In reality life is more complex and nuanced than this, and, irrespective of race, people do not purely fall into the “good” and “bad” categories, but some blend of both. The only character who seemed to escape this classification was probably Griffin, but even he only had one string to his bow.

The ending, well what can I say? The end part of the book certainly became much more melodramatic, and full of ranty, philosophical monologues. Is it a modern trend, post Game of Thrones, that we kill off our characters in an attempt for drama? In this case it was more of an anticlimax than a shock or drama. I wondered if Victoire was then set up to take the lead role in a sequel.

Overall this was a great read which would also make a wonderful movie. ( )
  mimbza | Apr 7, 2024 |
Excellent writing. A bit pretentious and slow in many parts. Don’t get the hype. ( )
  vickiv | Apr 2, 2024 |
A young boy is taken from his home in China, renamed Robin, and raised by an unfeeling linguistics professor in Victorian England. He learns a variety of languages and eventually matriculates to a real school: Babel, a college in Oxford that creates magic using the slight differences in meaning between words in different languages. Babel students provide all of upperclass Britain and the government with engraved silver bars that make their ships faster, their buildings stronger, and their gardens greener. For awhile Robin is intrigued and proud to be a cog in this glorious machine, but soon the scales begin to fall from his eyes - the college only wants him because he’s “foreign” and therefore has stronger language powers, but he will never belong in Britain because he’s not white. He wakes up to the toll colonialism takes on all of its lower class subjects, and joins an underground revolutionary group trying to fight against the status quo. But can they actually do anything against the goliath British Empire?

I loved the philosophy of language, I loved the magical academia, I loved the examination of colonialism. I felt like the consideration of various subjects was thoughts from my own head that I have never been able to put into words. It’s an incredibly topical book, involving Luddites (skilled artisans who fight against their work being replaced with dangerous machines making shoddy products, but get painted as technophobes) and state violence against nations who won’t allow themselves to be exploited, but really those are just timeless topics under capitalism. This book really scratched an itch for me, and reminded me of a lot of my other favorite books: The Golden Compass, The Magicians, and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. ( )
  norabelle414 | Apr 1, 2024 |
Set in an AU Oxford College where the world runs on the combined magic powers of silver and language, this is a story of the evils of empire and the sacrifices that are made by those who oppose them.

I *adored* this book. Think His Dark Materials but make it LINGUISTICS. Perfection. ( )
1 ääni electrascaife | Mar 24, 2024 |
Näyttää 1-5 (yhteensä 101) (seuraava | näytä kaikki)
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From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History? and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British empire. Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal. 1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he'll enroll in Oxford University's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation-also known as Babel. Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working- the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars- has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire's quest for colonization. For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide... Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?

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