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New fantasy novel 'Babel' explores translation as a tool of imperialism

The cover of "Babel." (Rebecca F. Kuang)
The cover of "Babel." (Rebecca F. Kuang)

On a balmy summer evening this August, fantasy fans are lined up outside the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., to hear Rebecca F. Kuang speak about her new book, “Babel: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.”

Kuang, who is best known for the gut-wrenching “Poppy War” fantasy trilogy, explores translation as a tool of imperialism in “Babel.”

In line for the book launch, Leah Drago, a long time reader of Kuang’s work, brimmed with excitement.

“Every book that I’ve read by [Kuang] I haven’t wanted to put down, even though they’re soul crushing and heartbreaking,” Drago says. “I thank her for crushing my soul as many times as she has.”

Producer Kalyani Saxena interviews author Rebecca F. Kuang. (Grace Griffin/Here & Now)

This “soul-crushing” element is what ties many Kuang fans together.

When asked what new readers can expect from Kuang’s work, fans Maura Sweeney and Tazrin Hossain offer one word: “pain.”

Sweeny tunes in for “really good characters that go through too much.” And Hossain is hoping for emotional reparations.

“I would like to be able to bill her for my therapy as well,” Hossain says. “But we’ll work on it.”

Kuang’s fans may need even more therapy after they read “Babel” — which doesn’t shy away from the realities of empire.

The novel begins in 1828 when Robin Swift, a Chinese orphan, is brought to Britain by a mysterious professor. The professor wants him to attend a magical school at Oxford University and train to be a translator.

But once Robin reaches Oxford, things quickly take a sinister turn as he realizes that his work as a translator means committing great evil on behalf of the British empire. Robin must choose between pursuing his love for learning or betraying his home country.

While “Babel” is a work of fiction, Kuang says in reality there are no neutral universities. They’re all part of the power dynamics that shape our real-life society.

“The university has always been complicit in oppression,” she says. “I think also about the history of institutions like Oxford and Cambridge and Harvard, Yale, Princeton and how they were deeply involved with the slave trade, with colonialism, not just as these by products of, ‘Oh, we accidentally received slave money to fund this institution,’ but rather institutions that were central to the replication of racist ideologies that justify colonialism and justified slave societies.”

“Babel” explores the relationship between academia and violence, inspired by Kuang’s own experiences attending Oxford as a graduate student.

“I love Oxford. I also had a terrible time at Oxford … The illusion is so beautiful because Oxford is so beautiful. And it is easy to forget all the things that happened to you while you were there and all the things the university stands for,” she says. “And this is the central conflict in ‘Babel’ and in a lot of my other work. I think about how one can so badly want to be apart of the elite center and share in its spoils while also knowing that it has to be deconstructed and torn down.”

Author Rebecca F. Kuang holds a copy of ‘Babel.’ (Grace Griffin/Here & Now)

“Babel” is Kuang’s first foray into dark academia, a literary sub-genre that blends academic settings with foreboding undertones of vengeance, obsession and murder.

Christina Orlando, a book editor at science fiction and fantasy magazine Tor.com, says Kuang is pushing marginalized voices to the forefront of a genre dominated by white writers and characters.

“What she’s done is draw attention to the way that not only non-English speakers are treated within prestige institutions and people of color in general are treated within prestige institutions,” Orlando says, “but the way that culture as a whole steals from non-white, non-Western, non-Eurocentric cultures for their own benefit, and has done so for centuries upon centuries and centuries.”

Needless to say, Orlando is a fan.

“[Kuang’s] research and her knowledge of the act of translation and the academic life surrounding that just sing on every page of the narrative,” Orlando says. “I love this book and will evangelize about it till the day I die.”

At its core, “Babel” is also a story about resistance against an all-powerful empire.

Throughout the novel, Robin and his friends grapple with one question: Can they change the institution from the inside? Or will they have to use violence to destroy it?

To help answer that question, Kuang spent time researching slave revolts.

“Slavery was not abolished because slave owners one day woke up and had a great moral awakening and thought, ‘Oh, maybe we should stop doing this,’” Kuang says. “Slavery was abolished because the bottom line was changed, because slave revolts were working, because Haiti became free, because at some point it became too unprofitable to keep owning slaves.

“So when you think about how change happens, the oppressor never comes to the table unless he is forced to. And the way you force the oppressor to come to the table is through violence.”

Ultimately, Kuang hopes “Babel” will make readers eager to engage with the difficult questions she explores in the book.

“I never mean to solve problems with my books. I advance arguments and I pose some possible solutions that I think are interesting,” she says. ”And if ‘Babel’ makes people more interested in the history of British colonialism, that will make me very happy.”

Book excerpt: ‘Babel: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution’

By Rebecca F. Kuang


Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Eileen Bolinsky. Saxena also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.