Review: Babel

1.5 out of 5 stars

A very cool idea goes absolutely nowhere until it goes right off a cliff. Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, by R.F. Kuang

Please explain to me why people are raving about this book! (4.5 stars based on 11.5k reviews on Goodreads) The expectations set by just about everyone kept me reading, and that’s the only reason I even finished. Otherwise I would have Goldfinch-ed this waste of time right back to Audible for a credit refund.

Babel is the nickname for the Oxford Institute of Translation, where the power of the meaning of words is made into magic. Here, in 1828, scholars create pairs of words with the same etymological root that have evolved to mean different things over the years. They harness the power of that difference (of the translation) into magical silver bars, which are used to do everything from make trains run to keep tea hot. Oh, and cure cholera.

Listen, it’s a really cool idea. Much like the concept that there are no true synonyms (done much better in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated), Babel is built on the idea that there are no perfect translations. The farther apart two languages – it’s 1828, so travel is very slow – the more power lies in connecting them. For example: engraving “invisible” onto a silver bar wouldn’t be enough to make one invisible. But engraving the Mandarin wú­xíng on the other side will, because wú­xíng also means incorporeal and intangible. Those words are related to invisible in English, but not quite the same. Get it? It doesn’t matter. Babel offers about as brief an explanation as I’ve just given and doesn’t bother to do more work. What could have been a massively brilliant central plot point – what should have been a fun and beautifully creative exercise in the art of language – is left woefully underdeveloped and underutilized. This book is about language, and Kuang’s writing is perfectly good, if not special. But I kept waiting for Babel the book to tease the magic from language the way Babel the school does. The way so many great authors have. That never happened. Instead Kuang tells you it’s magic, she never shows it.

In order to maximize the power of silverware, Babel seeks out students with exotic native languages. Our protagonist Robin Swift is orphaned in China, taken into the care of a Babel professor, and brought to Oxford. His class of four includes similarly acquired students from India, Haiti, and one from England.

But it’s 1828 and colonialism is rampant and everyone is England is a racist pretentious ethnocentric egomaniac. They hate other cultures, treat Robin and his friends like dirt, and freely espouse their right to rule over all peoples of Earth. It’s gross, and it’s boring. And surely accurate to the time. But this microaggressive racism is written in the most numbingly one-dimensional way. It’s all anyone is or does or says or encounters and it’s the only thing that happens for the first 60% of the book. SIXTY.

From there the book builds to a waste of an obvious climax. For a group of characters who are supposed to be so smart, their lack of a plan is annoyingly naive. Babel spends forever building up, then appears to come to its uninspired third act completely by accident. It leaves a very promising premise behind, lost in its own translation.

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