Only the dead

This is a quote from the book Yellowface by R.F. Kuang.

Quote by R.F. Kuang, “Only the dead can be so constantly present.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Yellowface – Summary

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.

Copyright © 2023 by R.F. Kuang.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Who has the right?

Excerpt from Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Photo by Nick Night on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Yellowface by R.F. Kuang.

WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO WRITE ABOUT SUFFERING?

I once went to a Korean War exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History with Athena, back when I was still fooling myself that we could be good friends. I’d just moved to DC after my stint with Teach for America, and I knew Athena had moved there a few months prior for her fellowship at Georgetown, so I’d reached out breezily to see what she was up to. She responded that she was working in the morning, but doing a museum visit in the afternoon, and would love if I came along.

Wandering about an exhibit on the Korean War wasn’t my first choice for how to spend a Friday afternoon, but Athena wanted to hang out with me, and back then I still felt a little thrill every time I received any shred of Athena’s attention, so I met her at the front doors at three.

“I’m so glad you’re in town!” She hugged me in that light, detached way of hers, the way that made it seem like she was a supermodel who’d hugged a line of a hundred fans and now no longer knew how to put real emphasis into this action, hugging. “Shall we go in?”

“Oh—yeah, sure.” That was it; no small talk, no how have you been? Just a brief hug before we walked straight into the museum’s temporary showcase of the experiences of American POWs in North Korea.

I thought this was a joke at first. Oh, silly, you didn’t think I’d want to stroll a stuffy old museum instead of catching up with you, did you? Or that perhaps, hopefully, we’d spend a few minutes here while she saw whatever she wanted to see and then remove ourselves to a cool, air-conditioned bar where we could sip fruity drinks and talk about, you know, life and publishing. But it was quickly apparent Athena wanted to linger here all afternoon. She would stand for ten minutes or longer in front of each life-size, black-and-white cutout, whispering under her breath as she read about the subject’s life story. Then she would touch her fingers to her lips, sigh, and shake her head. Once I even saw her wipe a tear from her eye.

“Imagine,” she kept murmuring. “All those lives lost. All that suffering for a cause that they didn’t even know if they believed in, just because their government was convinced domino theory was true. My God.”

And the whole thing would start again as we moved on to the next. Here we could read the last known letter from nineteen-year-old draftee Ricky Barnes, who’d asked his friend to bring his dog tags back to his mother when he caught diphtheria along the Yalu River.

Athena could not stop talking. At first I thought that maybe she was incredibly sensitive, that she couldn’t hear about someone else’s suffering without experiencing it acutely as her own. Fucking saint. But as we moved through the exhibit, I noticed she was scribbling things into a Moleskine. This was all research for some writing project.

“Just awful,” she whispered. “His widow was only seventeen—only a girl still. And she was pregnant already with his daughter, who would never know her father’s face.” And on and on. We inched down the exhibit while Athena examined every placard and cutout, announcing every so often what it was that made this particular story so very tragic.

At last I couldn’t take the sound of her voice anymore, so I wandered off to get a closer look at the uniform displays. I couldn’t find Athena when I exited the exhibit, and for a moment I thought she’d ditched me before I saw her sitting on a bench next to an old man in a wheelchair, jotting things into her notebook while he talked at her boobs.

“And do you remember how that felt?” she asked him. “Can you describe it for me? Everything you can remember?”

Jesus Christ, I thought. She’s a vampire.

Athena had a magpie’s eye for suffering. This skill united all her best-received works. She could see through the grime and sludge of facts and details to the part of the story that bled. She collected true narratives like seashells, polished them off, and presented them, sharp and gleaming, to horrified and entranced readers.

That museum visit was disturbing, but it didn’t surprise me.

I’d seen Athena steal before.

She probably didn’t even think of it as theft. The way she described it, this process wasn’t exploitative, but something mythical and profound. “I try to make sense of the chaos,” she told the New Yorker once. “I think the way we learn about history in classrooms is so antiseptic. It makes those struggles feel so far away, like they could never happen to us, like we would never make the same decisions that the people in those textbooks did. I want to bring those bloody histories to the fore. I want to make the reader confront how close to the present those histories still are.”

Elegantly put. Noble, even. When you phrase it like that, it’s not exploitation, it’s a service.

But tell me, really, what more right did Athena have to tell those stories than anyone else did? She never lived in China for more than a few months at a time. She was never in a war zone. She grew up attending private schools in England paid for by her parents’ tech jobs, summered on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and spent her adult life between New Haven, NYC, and DC. She doesn’t even speak Chinese fluently—she’s admitted in interviews that she “spoke only English at home in an attempt to better assimilate.”

Athena would go on Twitter and talk about the importance of Asian American representation, about how the model minority myth was false because Asians were overrepresented at both the low and high ends of the income spectrum, how Asian women continued to be fetishized and made victims of hate crimes, and how Asians were silently suffering because they did not exist as a voting category to white American politicians. And then she’d go home to that Dupont Circle apartment and settle down to write on a thousand-dollar antique typewriter while sipping a bottle of expensive Riesling her publisher had sent her for earning out her advance.

Athena never personally experienced suffering. She just got rich from it. She wrote an award-winning short story based on what she saw at that exhibit, titled “Whispers along the Yalu.” And she wasn’t even Korean.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Yellowface – Summary

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.

Copyright © 2023 by R.F. Kuang.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

It should have been distressing

This is a quote from the book Babel by R.F. Kuang.

Quote by R.F. Kuang, “It should have been distressing. In truth, though, Robin found it was actually quite easy to put up with any degree of social unrest, as long as one got used to looking away.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Babel – Summary

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. The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

Copyright © 2022 by R.F. Kuang.

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on Storygraph.

Five sci-fi/fantasy books inspired by Chinese history

May is Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month! So for this month I’m going to share reading recommendations from across Asia and the Pacific Islands.

I love this part of the world and I’m excited to be sharing books from here. I think books are a great way to gain insight into peoples’ lives and their culture. You may not be able to travel or live everywhere you’re interested in, but you can definitely read books from anywhere in the world.


China has a long history, specifically a long written history. The oldest written records are about 3,500 years old!

This is by no means unique, there are other countries with thousands of years of history (i.e., Egypt and Mesopotamia).

But with such a long, recorded history, there is plenty of inspiration for authors to pull from.

These new books inspired by Chinese history are similar to the resurgence of Greek myth retellings, which allow for a fresh take by telling the story from the women’s point of view or highlighting characters previously seen as peripheral. I’m currently loving the fresh perspectives of stories inspired by Chinese history.

I love how women and nonbinary authors are finally being offered publishing deals to tell these diverse stories that draw inspiration from China, but are centering women, nonbinary, gender non-conforming individuals, and various types of relationships.

I find it fascinating to see how modern day issues, like gender, can be explored through a historical setting. For instance, in She Who Becomes the Sun the main character takes on her brother’s name and poses as a boy to seek refuge at a monastery. I think it shows that these ideas are nothing new, that the concepts are rarely black and white, and they’ve always played a role in our lives.

Personally, I love seeing diverse authors finding their voice and being recognized for their creativity. I love that different cultures and histories are becoming more widely recognized, accepted, and seen as valuable.

I find that being able to read from a variety of perspectives opens us up to more interesting stories. I sometimes struggle to read classics by old white men because their women characters often lack depth and I get tired of only reading about men.

I think classics have value in that they reflect the era they came from. But it makes me wonder how many fascinating stories we no longer have because they were not deemed valuable at the time or the storyteller had no means to write/publish the stories.

At least now more diverse voices are being offered a platform, and for everyone else there’s always the opportunity to self-publish online.

Photo by Kayla Kozlowski on Unsplash

Five sci-fi/fantasy books inspired by Chinese history

Here’s a list of five books with authors inspired by Chinese history or cultural stories.

  1. Strange Beasts of China/异兽志 (2006)
  2. The Poppy War (2018)
  3. The Empress of Salt and Fortune (2020)
  4. Iron Widow (2021)
  5. She Who Became the Sun (2021)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

Strange Beasts of China/异兽志 (2006)

by Yan Ge (颜歌), translated from the Mandarin Chinese by Jeremy Tiang

  • Year Published: 2006
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, contemporary, fantasy, literary, dark, mysterious, reflective, medium-paced
  • Translated version published in 2021 through Tilted Axis press

From one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Chinese literature, an uncanny and playful novel that blurs the line between human and beast …

In the fictional Chinese city of Yong’an, an amateur cryptozoologist is commissioned to uncover the stories of its fabled beasts. These creatures live alongside humans in near-inconspicuousness—save their greenish skin, serrated earlobes, and strange birthmarks.

Aided by her elusive former professor and his enigmatic assistant, our narrator sets off to document each beast, and is slowly drawn deeper into a mystery that threatens her very sense of self.

Part detective story, part metaphysical enquiry, Strange Beasts of China engages existential questions of identity, humanity, love and morality with whimsy and stylistic verve.

Links:

The Poppy War (2018)

by R.F. Kuang

  • Year Published: 2018
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, historical, adventurous, dark, tense, medium-paced
  • R.F. Kuang’s first novel

An epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Links:

The Empress of Salt and Fortune (2020)

by Nghi Vo

  • Year Published: 2020
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, lgbtqia+, emotional, mysterious, reflective, medium-paced
  • First book published in the Singing Hills Cycle – but the books can be read in any order

A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Links:

Iron Widow (2021)

by Xiran Jay Zhao (they/them)

  • Year Published: 2021
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, lgbtqia+, science fiction, young adult, adventurous, dark, tense, fast-paced
  • New York Times Bet Seller and Hugo-award-disqualified (due to political censorship) author

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But it doesn’t go quite as she expects.

Links:

She Who Became the Sun (2021)

by Shelley Parker-Chan (they/them)

  • Year Published: 2021
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, historical, lgbtqia+, adventurous, dark, tense, medium-paced
  • Won both the Best Novel and Best Newcomer awards at the British Fantasy Awards

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.

Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

War doesn’t determine…

This is a quote from the book The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.

Quote by R.F. Kuang, “War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

The Poppy War – Summary

An epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Copyright © 2018 by R.F. Kuang.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

…because she had chosen it for herself

Excerpt from The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Photo by Texco Kwok on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.

She threw herself into her studies. Classes became like warfare, each interaction a battle. With every raised hand and every homework assignment, she competed against Nezha and Venka and every other Sinegardian. She had to prove that she deserved to be kept on, that she merited further training.

She had needed failure to remind her that she wasn’t like the Sinegardians—she hadn’t grown up speaking casual Hesperian, wasn’t familiar with the command structure of the Imperial Militia, didn’t know the political relationships between the Twelve Warlords like the back of her hand. The Sinegardians had this knowledge ingrained from childhood. She would have to develop it.

Every waking hour that she didn’t spend in class, she spent in the archives. She read the assigned texts out loud to herself; wrapping her tongue around the unfamiliar Sinegardian dialect until she had eradicated all hints of her southern drawl.

She began to burn herself again. She found release in the pain; it was comforting, familiar. It was a trade-off she was well used to. Success required sacrifice. Sacrifice meant pain. Pain meant success.

She stopped sleeping. She sat in the front row so that there was no way she could doze off. Her head ached constantly. She always wanted to vomit. She stopped eating.

She made herself miserable. But then, all of her options led to misery. She could run away. She could get on a boat and escape to another city. She could run drugs for another opium smuggler. She could, if it came down to it, return to Tikany, marry, and hope no one found out that she couldn’t have children until it was too late.

But the misery she felt now was a good misery. This misery she reveled in, because she had chosen it for herself.

One month later, Rin tested at the top of one of Jima’s frequent Linguistics exams. She beat Nezha’s score by two points. When Jima announced the top five scores, Rin jerked upright, happily shocked.

She had spent the entire night cramming Hesperian verb tenses, which were infinitely confusing. Modern Hesperian was a language that followed neither rhyme nor reason. Its rules were close to pure randomness, its pronunciation guides haphazard and riddled with exceptions.

She couldn’t reason through Hesperian, so she memorized it, the way she memorized everything she didn’t understand.

“Good,” Jima said crisply when she handed Rin’s exam scroll back to her.

Rin was startled at how good “good” made her feel.

She found that she was fueled by praise from her masters. Praise meant that she had finally, finally received validation that she was not nothing. She could be brilliant, could be worth someone’s attention. She adored praise—craved it, needed it, and realized she found relief only when she finally had it.

She realized, too, that she felt about praise the way that addicts felt about opium. Each time she received a fresh infusion of flattery, she could think only about how to get more of it. Achievement was a high. Failure was worse than withdrawal. Good test scores brought only momentary relief and temporary pride—she basked in her grace period of several hours before she began to panic about her next test.

She craved praise so deeply that she felt it in her bones. And just like an addict, she did whatever she could to get it.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Poppy War – Summary

An epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Copyright © 2018 by R.F. Kuang.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

So desperately lonely

This is a quote from the book Babel by R.F. Kuang.

Quote by R.F. Kuang, “He could have cried then. He’d been so desperately lonely, and had only now realized it, and now he wasn’t, and this felt so good he didn’t know what to do with himself.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Babel – Summary

Here is the book summary:

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. The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

Copyright © 2022 by R.F. Kuang.

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on Storygraph.

It was all worth it

Excerpt from Babel by R.F. Kuang.

Photo by Simon Haslett on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Babel by R.F. Kuang.

Next, Professor Playfair gathered them around and empty worktable for a demonstration. ‘Now, the common man thinks that silver-working is equivalent to sorcery.’ He rolled his sleeves up to his elbows as he spoke, shouting so they could hear him over the din. ‘They think that the power of the bars lies in the silver itself, that silver is some inherently magical substance which contains the power to alter the world.’

He unlocked the left drawer and pulled out a blank silver bar. ‘They’re not wholly wrong. There is indeed something special about silver that makes it an ideal vehicle for what we do. I like to think that it was blessed by the gods – it’s refined with mercury, after all, and Mercury is the messenger god, no? Mercury, Hermes. Does silver not then have an inextricable link to hermeneutics? But let’s not get too romantic. No, the power of the bar lies in words. More specifically, the stuff of language that words are incapable of expressing – the stuff that gets lost when we move between one language and another. The silver catches what’s lost and manifests it into being.’

He glanced up, took in their baffled faces. ‘You have questions. Don’t worry. You won’t start working with silver until near the end of your third year. You’ll have plenty of time to catch up on the relevant theory before then. What matters now is that you understand the magnitude of what we do here.’ He reached for an engraving pen. ‘Which is, of course, the casting of spells.’

He began carving a word into one end of the bar. ‘I’m just showing you a simple one. The effect will be quite subtle, but see if you feel it.’

He finished writing on that end, then held it up to show them. ‘Heimlich. German for the secret and clandestine, which is how I’ll translate it to English. But heimlich means more than just secrets. We derive heimlich from a Proto-Germanic word that means “home”. Put together this constellation of meaning, and what do you get? something like the secret, private feeling you get from being somewhere you belong, secluded from the outside world.’

As he spoke, he wrote the word clandestine on the flip side of the bar. The moment he finished, the silver began to vibrate.

Heimlich,’ he said. ‘Clandestine.’

Once again Robin heard a singing without a source, an inhuman voice from nowhere.

The world shifted. Something bound them – some intangible barrier blurred the air around them, drowned out the surrounding noise, made it feel as though they were the only ones on a floor they knew was crowded with scholars. They were safe here. They were alone. This was their tower, their refuge.

They were no strangers to this magic. They had all seen silver-work in effect before; in England it was impossible to avoid. But it was one thing to know the bars could work, that silver-work was simply the foundation of a functioning, advanced society. It was another thing to witness with their own eyes the warping of reality, the way words seized what no words could describe and invoked a physical effect that should not be.

Victoire had her hand to her mouth. Letty was breathing hard. Ramy blinked very rapidly, as if trying to hold back tears.

And Robin, watching the still quivering bar, saw clearly now that it was all worth it. The loneliness, the beatings, the long and aching hours of study, the ingesting of languages like bitter tonic so that he could one day do this – it was all worth it.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Babel – Summary

Here is the book summary:

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. The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

Copyright © 2022 by R.F. Kuang.

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on Storygraph.

They were almost in love

This is a quote from the book Babel by R.F. Kuang.

Quote by R.F. Kuang, “By the time they’d finished their tea, they were almost in love with each other – not quite yet, because true love took time and memories, but as close to love as first impressions could take them. … But that afternoon they could see with certainty the kind of friends they would be, and loving that vision was close enough.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here and here.

Babel – Summary

Here is the book summary:

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. The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

Copyright © 2022 by R.F. Kuang.

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on Storygraph.

To carry across

Excerpt from Babel by R.F. Kuang

Photo by Ugur Akdemir on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Babel by R.F. Kuang.

Professor Playfair’s introductory class to Translation Theory met at Tuesday mornings on the fifth floor of the tower. They’d barely been seated when he began to lecture, filling the narrow classroom with his booming showman’s voice.

‘By now you are each passably fluent in at least three languages, which is a feat in its own right. Today, however, I will try to impress upon you the unique difficulty of translation. Consider how tricky it is merely to say the word hello. Hello seems so easy! Bonjour. Ciao. Hallo. And on and on. But then say we are translating from Italian into English. In Italian, ciao can be used upon greeting or upon parting – it does not specify either, it simply marks etiquette at the point of contact. It is derived from the Venetian s-ciào vostro, meaning something akin to “your obedient servant”. But I digress. The point is, when we bring ciao into English – if we are translating a scene where the characters disperse, for example – we must impose that ciao has been said as goodbye. Sometimes this is obvious from context, but sometimes not – sometimes we must add new words in our translation. So already things are complicated, and we haven’t moved past hello.

‘The first lesson any good translator internalizes is that there exists no one-to-one correlation between words or even concepts from one language to another. The Swiss philologist Johann Breitinger, who claimed that languages were merely “collections of totally equivalent words and locutions which are interchangeable, and which fully correspond to each other in meaning”, was dreadfully wrong. Language is not like maths. And even maths differs depending on the language – but we will revisit that later.’

Robin found himself searching Professor Playfair’s face as he spoke. He was not sure what he was looking for. Some evidence of evil, perhaps. The cruel, selfish, lurking monster Griffin had sketched. But Professor Playfair seemed only a cheerful, beaming scholar, enamoured by the beauty of words. Indeed, in daylight, in the classroom, his brother’s grand conspiracies felt quite ridiculous.

‘Language does not exist as a nomenclature for a set of universal concepts,’ Professor Playfair went on. ‘If it did, then translation would not be a highly skilled profession – we would simply sit a class full of dewy-eyed freshers down with dictionaries and have the completed works of the buddha on our shelves in no time. Instead, we have to learn to dance between that age-old dichotomy, helpfully eludciated by Cicero and Hieronymus: verbun e verbo and sensum e sensu. Can anyone—’

‘Word for word,’ Letty said promptly. ‘And sense for sense.’

‘Good,’ said Professor Playfair. ‘That is the dilemma. Do we take words as our unit of translation, or do we subordinate accuracy of individual words to the overall spirit of the text?’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Letty. ‘Shouldn’t a faithful translation of individual words produce an equally faithful text?’

‘It would,’ said Professor Playfair, ‘if, again, words existed in relation to each other in the same way in every language. But they do not. The words schlecht and schlimm both mean “bad” in German, but how do you know when to use one or the other? When do we use fleuve or rivière in French? How do we render the French esprit into English? We ought not merely translate each word on its own, but must rather evoke the sense of how they fit the whole of the passage. But how can that be done, if languages are indeed so different? These differences aren’t trivial, mind you – Erasmus wrote and entire treatise on why he rendered the Greek logos into the Latin sermo in his translation of the New Testament. Translating word-for-word is simply inadequate.

That servile path thou nobly dost decline,’ Ramy recited, ‘of tracing word by word, and line by line.’

Those are the laboured births of slavish brains, not the effect of poetry, but pains,’ Professor Playfiar finished. ‘John Denham. Very nice, Mr Mirza. So you see, translators do not so much deliver a message as they rewrite the original. And herein lies the difficulty – rewriting is still writing, and writing always reflects the author’s ideology and biases. After all, the Latin translatio means “to carry across”. Translation involves a spatial dimension – a literal transportation of text across conquered territory, words delivered like spices from an alien land. Words mean something quite different when they journey from the palaces of Rome to the tearooms of today’s Britain.

‘And we have not yet moved past the lexical. If translation were only a matter of finding the right themes, the right general ideas, then theoretically we could eventually make our meaning clear, couldn’t we? But something gets in the way – syntax, grammar, morphology and orthography, all the things that form the bones of a language. Consider the Heinrich Heine poem “Ein Fichtenbaum.” It’s short, and its message is quite easy to grasp. A pine tree, longing for a palm tree, represents a man’s desire for a woman. Yet translating it into English has been devilishly tricky, because English doesn’t have genders like German does. So there’s no way to convey the binary opposition between the masculine ein Fichtenbaum and the feminine einer Palme. You see? So we must proceed from the starting assumption that distortion is inevitable. The question is how to distort with deliberation.’

He tapped the book lying on his desk. ‘You’ve all finished Tytler, yes?’

They nodded. They’d been assigned the introductory chapter of Essays on Principles of Translation by Lord Alexander Fraser Tytler Woodhouselee the night before.

‘Then you’ll have read that Tytler recommends three basic principles. Which are – yes, Miss Desgraves?’

‘First, that the translation conveys a complete and accurate idea of the original,’ said Victoire. ‘Second, that the translation mirrors the style and manner of writing of the original. And third, that the translation should read with all the ease of the original composition.’

She spoke with such confident precision, Robin thought she must have been reading from the text. He was very impressed when he glanced over and saw her consulting nothing but blank space. Ramy, too, had this talent for perfect recall – Robin was beginning to feel a bit intimidated by his cohort.

‘Very good,’ said Professor Playfair. ‘This sounds basic enough. But what do we mean by the “style and manner” of the original? What does it mean for a composition to read “easily”? What audience do we have in mind when we make these claims? These are the questions we will tackle this term, and such fascinating questions they are.’ He clasped his hands together. ‘Allow me again to descend into theatrics by discussing our namesake, Babel – yes dear students, I can’t quite escape the romanticism of this institution. Indulge me, please.’

His tone conveyed no regret at all. Professor Playfair loved this dramatic mysticism, these monologues that must have been rehearsed and perfected over years of teaching. But no one complained. They loved it too.

‘It is often argued that the greatest tragedy of the Old Testament was not man’s exile from the Garden of Eden, but the fall of the Tower of Babel. For Adam and Eve, though cast from grace, could still speak and comprehend the language of angels. But when men in their hubris decided to build a path to heave, God confounded their understanding. He divided and confused them and scattered them about the face of the earth.

‘What was lost at Babel was not merely human unity, but the original language – something primordial and innate, perfectly understandable and lacking nothing in form or content. Biblical scholars call it the Adamic language. Some think it is Hebrew. Some thing it is a real but ancient language that has been lost to time. Some think it is a new, artificial language that we ought to invent. Some thing French fulfils this role; some think English, once it’s finished robbing and morphing, might.’

‘Oh, no, this is easy,’ said Ramy. ‘It’s Syriac.’

‘Very funny, Mr Mirza.’ Robin did not know if Ramy was indeed joking, but no one else made a comment. Professor Playfair ploughed ahead. ‘For me, however, it matters not what the Adamic language was, for it’s clear we have lost any access to it. We will never speak the divine language. But by amassing all the world’s languages under this roof, by collecting the full range of human expressions, or as near to it as we can get, we can try. We will never touch heaven from this mortal place, but our confusion is not infinite. We can, through perfecting the arts of translation, achieve what humanity lost at Babel.’ Professor Playfair sighed, moved by his own performance. Robin thought he saw actually tears form in the corners of his eyes.

‘Magic.’ Professor Playfair pressed a hand against his chest. ‘What we are doing is magic. It won’t always feel that way – indeed, when you do tonight’s exercise, it’ll feel more like folding laundry than chasing the ephemeral. But never forget the audacity of what you are attempting. Never forget that you are defying a curse laid by God.’

Robin raised his hand. ‘Do you mean, then, that our purpose here is to bring mankind closer together as well?’

Professor Playfair cocked his head. ‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I only…’ Robin faltered. It sounded silly as he said it, a child’s fancy, not a serious scholarly query. Letty and Victoire were frowning at him; even Ramy was wrinkling his nose. Robin tried again – he knew what he meant to ask, only he couldn’t think of an elegant or subtle way to phrase it. ‘Well – since in the Bible, God split mankind apart. And I wonder if – if the purpose of translation, then is to bring mankind back together. If we translate to – I don’t know, bring about that paradise again, on earth, between nations.’

Professor Playfair looked baffled by this. But quickly his features reassembled into a sprightly beam. ‘Well, of course. Such is the project of empire – and why, therefore, we translate at the pleasure of the Crown.’

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Babel – Summary

Here is the book summary:

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. The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

Copyright © 2022 by R.F. Kuang.

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on Storygraph.