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.’

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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.

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