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

R. F. Kuang


"Babel" is set in 1828, in a world that is powered by the "silver workers" of the British Empire. When a word is translated from one language to another, there is a certain amount of meaning lost in translation that can be released as directed energy. Students learn to do "silver working" at Oxford University's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation known as Babel. The most talented students are natives of Britian's colonial empire, born with a gift for languages and the ability to do this magic. The story revolves around four students, one from Canton, one from Calcutta, one from Haiti and the fourth English as they learn the art of "silver working" and become sucked into the colonial resistance movement.

R F Kuang, author of the popular fantasy trilogy "The Poppy War" which was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and World Fantasy awards is as impressive an academic as she is a fantasy writer. She is a Marshall Scholar and translator with a MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge, a MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford and is working on her PhD in East Asian Languages and Literature at Yale. Her new release, "Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution" is as much about the art of translation and the effects of colonialism as it is a fantasy. Since Kuang is a gifted fantasy writer, her world building is excellent but because she is more concerned in this book with discussing colonialism, her characters feel less like fully developed people and more like place holders to advance her historical concerns. I would love to read a less politically overt story set in this world. That said, I found her digressions on the art of translating languages fascinating and thought provoking.