“The university ripped us from our homes and made us believe our futures could only consist of serving the Crown,’ said Robin.
‘The university tells us we are special, chosen, selected, when really we are severed from our motherlands and raised within spitting distance of a class we can never truly become a part of. The university turned us against our own and made us believe our only options were complicity or the streets. That was no favour, Sterling. It was cruelty. Don’t ask me to love my master.”
“The phrase tantú literally meant ‘a flat road’, metaphorically, a ‘a tranquil life’. This is what he wanted: a smooth, even path to a future with no surprises. The only obstacle, of course, was his conscience.”
“Did he owe Oxford his life, just because he had drunk champagne within its cloisters? Did he owe Babel his loyalty because he had once believed its lies?”
“The English made regular use of only two flavours – salty and not salty – and did not seem to recognize any of the others. For a country that profited so well from trading in spices, its citizens were violently averse to actually using them; in all his time in Hampstead, he never tasted a dish that could be properly described as ‘seasoned’, let alone ‘spicy’.”
“Victory is not assured. Victory may be in the portents, but it must be urged there by violence, by suffering, by martyrs, by blood. Victory is wrought by ingenuity, persistence, and sacrifice. Victory is a game of inches, of historical contingencies where everything goes right because they have made it go right.”
“Language is a resource just like gold and silver.”
“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.”
“The professors like to pretend that the tower is a refuge for pure knowledge, that it sits above the mundane concerns of business and commerce, but it does not. It’s intricately tied to the business of colonialism. It is the business of colonialism.”
“The bars were singing, shaking; trying, he thought, to express some unutterable truth about themselves, which was that translation was impossible, that the realm of pure meaning they captured and manifested would and could not ever be known, that the enterprise of this tower had been impossible from inception.”
“For how could there ever be an Adamic language? The thought now made him laugh. There was no innate, perfectly comprehensible language; there was no candidate, not English, not French, that could bully and absorb enough to become one. 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 endeavour, however futile, to move between them.”
“You have such a great fear of freedom, brother. It’s shackling you. You’ve identified so hard with the colonizer, you think any threat to them is a threat to you. When are you going to realize you can’t be one of them?”
“Trying, he thought, to express some unutterable truth about themselves. Which was that translation was impossible. That the realm of pure meaning they captured and manifested would and could not ever be known. That the enterprise of this tower had been impossible from inception. For how could there ever be an endemic language? The thought now made him laugh. There was no innate, perfectly comprehensible language. There was no candidate – not English, not French – that could bully and absorb enough to become one. 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.”
“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular. And Robin found it incredible, how this country, whose citizens prided themselves so much on being better than the rest of the world, could not make it through an afternoon tea without borrowed goods.”
“If we push in the right spots – then we’ve moved things to the breaking point. The the future becomes fluid, and change is possible. History isn’t a premed tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.”
“I suppose we decided to be girls because being boys seems to require giving up half your brain cells.”
“How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.”
“There are no kind masters, Letty,’ Anthony continued. ‘It doesn’t matter how lenient, how gracious, how invested in your education they make out to be. Masters are masters in the end.”
“But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of his dialitic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, it means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So, where does that leave us? How can we conclude except by acknowledging that an act of translation is always an act of betrayal?”
“She learned revolution is, in fact, always unimaginable. It shatters the world you know. The future is unwritten, brimming with potential. The colonizers have no idea what is coming, and that makes them panic. It terrifies them.
Good. It should.”
“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.”
“No one’s focused on how we’re all connected. We only think about how we suffer, individually. The poor and middle-class of this country don’t realize they have more in common with us than they do with Westminster.”
“But the future, vague as it was frightening, was easily ignored for now; it paled so against the brilliance of the present”
“This is how colonialism works. It convinces us that the fallout from resistance is entirely our fault, that the immoral choice is resistance itself rather than the circumstances that demanded it.”
“Now he was astonished by how much he missed them. The English made regular use of only two flavours – salty and not salty – and did not seem to recognize any of the others. For a country that profited so well from trading in spices, its citizens were violently averse to actually using them; in all his time in Hampstead, he never tasted a dish that could be properly described as ‘seasoned’, let alone ‘spicy’.”
“One thing united them all, without Babel they had nowhere in this country to go. They had been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they didn’t understand and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom. They did not want to give them back.”
“Why, he wondered, did white people get so very upset when anyone disagreed with them?”
“What you don’t understand,’ said Ramy, ‘is how much people like you will excuse if it just means they can get tea and coffee on their breakfast tables. They don’t care, Letty. They just don’t care.”
“Nice comes from the Latin word for “stupid”,’ said Griffin. ‘We do not want to be nice.”
“The thing about violence, see, is that the Empire has a lot more to lose than we do. Violence disrupts the extractive economy. You wreak havoc on one supply line, and there’s a dip in prices across the Atlantic. Their entire system of trade is high-strung and vulnerable to shocks because they’ve made it thus, because the rapacious greed of capitalism is punishing. It’s why slave revolts succeed. They can’t fire on their own source of labour – it’d be like killing their own golden geese.
‘But if the system is so fragile, why do we so easily accept the colonial situation? Why do we think it’s inevitable? Why doesn’t Man Friday ever get himself a rifle, or slit Robinson Crusoe’s neck in the night? The problem is that we’re always living like we’ve lost. We’re all living like you. We see their guns, their silver-work, and their ships, and we think it’s already over for us. We don’t stop to consider how even the playing field actually might be. And we never consider what things would look like if we took the gun.”
“…there is no such thing as human colonization.”
“They were men at Oxford; they were not Oxford men. But the enormity of this knowledge was so devastating, such a vicious antithesis to the three golden days they’d blindly enjoyed, that neither of them could say it out loud.”
“In the years to come, Robin would return so many times to this night. He was forever astonished by its mysterious alchemy, by how easily two badly socialized, restrictively raised strangers had transformed into kindred spirits in a span of minutes.”
“You’re a proper little princess, aren’t you? Big estate in Brighton, summers in Toulouse, porcelain china on your shelves and Assam in your teacups? How could you understand? Your people reap the fruits of the Empire. Ours don’t. So shut up, Letty, and just listen to what we’re trying to tell you. It’s not right what they’re doing to our countries.’ His voice grew louder, harder. ‘And it’s not right that I’m trained to use my languages for their benefit, to translate laws and texts to facilitate their rule, when there are people in India and China and Haiti and all over the Empire and the world who are hungry and starving because the British would rather put silver in their hats and harpsichords than anywhere it could do some good.”
“My point being, abolition happened because white people found reasons to care – whether those be economic or religious. You just have to make them think they came up with the idea themselves. You can’t appeal to their inner goodness. I have never met an Englishman I trusted to do the right thing out of sympathy.”
“So, you see, translators do not so much deliver a message as the rewrite the original. And herein lies the difficulty – rewriting is still writing, and writing always reflects the authors ideology and biases.”
“We’re here to make magic with words”
“You’re lost, brother. You’re a ship adrift, searching for familiar shores. I understand what it is you want. I sought it too. But there is no homeland. It’s gone.” He paused beside Robin on his way to the door. His fingers landed on Robin’s shoulder, squeezed so hard they hurt. “But realize this, brother. You fly no one’s flag. You’re free to seek your own harbour. And you can do so much more than tread water.”
“You know the funny thing about Afghanistan?’ Griffin’s voice was very soft. ‘The British aren’t going to invade with English troops. They’re going to invade with troops from Bengal and Bombay. They’re going to have sepoys fight the Afghans, just like they had sepoys fight and die for them at Irrawaddy, because those Indian troops have the same logic you do, which is that it’s better to be a servant of the Empire, brutal coercion and all, than to resist. Because it’s safe. Because it’s stable, because it lets them survive. And that’s how they win, brother. They pit us against each other. They tear us apart.”
“Every time you come up against something difficult, you just want to make it go away, and you think the way to do that is self-flagellation. You’re obsessed with punishment. But that’s not how this works, Birdie. You going to prison fixes nothing. You hanging from the gallows fixes nothing. The world’s still broken. A war’s still coming. The only way to properly make amends is to stop it, which you don’t want to do, because really what this is about is your being afraid.”
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
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 of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.
Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports 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? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
about the book
Babel is a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, grappling with student revolutions, colonial resistance and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
But Babel is not falling into the usual fantasy categories. It, instead, reflects historical events (the opium war), making them sharper than how they really are.