The Violence of Language

By Paige Allen

Rebecca F. Kuang on her anticolonial Oxford fantasy novel.


Translation is central to how Rebecca F. Kuang sees the world: ‘I feel like I’m constantly translating myself to the world; all of us are.’ Kuang mediates between languages and cultures not only as a scholar of Sinophone and Asian American literature but also as a fiction writer. While her forthcoming book, Babel, explicitly focuses on translation as a theme and a plot device, Kuang writes speculative fiction which translates real-world issues into fantasy settings. Through alternative worlds, she challenges her readers to engage with complex histories and urgent questions of the present. Emerging from her undergraduate research on the Rape of Nanjing, Kuang’s first trilogy — The Poppy War (2018), The Dragon Republic (2019), and The Burning God (2020) — recasts 20th-century Chinese history and politics as a fantasy epic, giving opium magical properties and reimagining Chairman Mao as a teenage girl. Her new book, Babel (out later this year), tells an alternate history of 19th-century England in which the burgeoning British empire is powered by silver bars that harness the magic of translation.


Kuang started writing Babel in 2020 while practising literary translation and completing an MSt in Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship — and experiencing what she calls the ‘cultural translation’ of ‘living between two worlds’. She is familiar with living in translation: ‘As a woman of colour and a Chinese American immigrant, I have been translating for myself and for my parents since I was a child.’ In England, she was ‘constantly mistranslated and misperceived’ due to differences between American and English slang, customs, and etiquette. Witnessing how, at Oxford, Chinese-appearing students were assumed to be tourists and condescended to, Kuang thought often about England’s fraught history with China. These experiences infuse Babel with an investment in the difficulties of, as Kuang puts it, determining ‘what we want to say and how we get other people to hear us’.


Babel — or, to give it its full title, Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution — follows Robin, a boy orphaned by cholera in Canton and brought to England to train for enrolment at Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. At Babel, Robin experiences all the hallmarks of a romanticised Oxford education — engrossing lectures, night-time escapades, plenty of biscuits and scones, and even an extravagant ball.


But Kuang puts a magical twist on the Oxford story: her characters study translation in order to eventually wield its magic. Translators work to discover ‘match-pairs’, words from two different languages that mean almost the same thing. However, as Babel’s Professor Playfair explains to his students: ‘Because translation can never be perfect, the necessary distortions — the meaning lost or warped in the journey — are caught, and then manifested by the silver.’ The magical effect results from the distortion of meaning in translation. For example, when preparing for their exams, the students of Babel (colloquially called Babblers) can use bars engraved with the match-pair of the English meticulous and its Latin forerunner metus, meaning ‘fear’ or ‘dread’. Capturing the modern connotation of meticulous (fearful of making a mistake), the bars ‘induce a chilling anxiety whenever the user erred in their work’.


A linguist and a polyglot’s dream, Babel is brimming with etymological histories and meditations on the principles of translation. The true magic of Kuang’s novel lies in its ability to be both rigorously academic and consistently welcoming to the reader, making translation on the page feel as enchanting and powerful as any effects it can achieve with the aid of silver.


Yet, what the Babblers realise — the real catch in Kuang’s novel — is that, if translation can never be faithful, then it must always be an act of betrayal: ‘Translation means doing violence upon the original; means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes.’ Translation is always, by necessity, political. Babel exemplifies the British empire’s ability to harness resources from its colonies. Words — and people like Robin — are taken from their homelands, brought to England, and reworked to serve British imperialism. Chinese characters are carved on silver bars that power British ships delivering opium.


While the details of the political situations in Babel are particular to the 1830s (British presence in India, looming conflict with China), Kuang is invested in how those dynamics continue to play out today. ‘There’s no such thing as postcolonialism,’ Kuang says, drawing connections from the situation of colonial territories in the 1830s through the height of imperialism in the later Victorian era to the present. In studying Cold War and post-Cold War literature, she finds that anti-imperial, liberatory revolutions in the wake of World War II did not solve everything: ‘Those official colonial relationships simply turned into unofficial and neo-colonial relationships. A lot of countries that had English structures of power, of unofficial hierarchies, have struggled to do away with them. Colonialism leaves a very, very long shadow, and language is only one small part of it.’


Considering the role of language in colonisation, Kuang was compelled to write Babel because she felt ‘insufficient attention had been paid to the ways in which translation can be used as a tool of domination, not just in the 1830s but also in present day contexts’. Non-Anglophone scholars are misinterpreted and devalued, assumed to be less intelligent and articulate; English is still treated as the language of the elite in India; education in ‘the West’, at institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, remains an avenue for advancement in formerly colonised territories.


For Robin and his friends, Oxford’s romanticised potential is undercut by the nature of their identities and the oppressive agendas supported by Babel’s intellectual power. The Babblers are constantly caught between the resources at their fingertips in the ivory tower and reminders of whom the ivory tower was built to exclude and continues to exploit. Without Babel’s need for scholars with native languages other than English, Robin and his friends, Ramy (originally from Calcutta) and Victoire (born in Haiti, raised in France), would never be allowed at Oxford by virtue of the colour of their skin (and, in Victoire’s case, her gender). Kuang’s fantasy invention of Babel enables her to explore issues of race, gender, and colonisation in ways that a strictly ‘factual’ account would not allow. Moreover, her diverse cohort of Babblers pushes back against a tendency in historical fiction to depict characters from historically marginalised groups only in positions of subservience.


Of course, Babel’s catch — that life at Oxford is not a dream come true, that the ‘privileges’ dangled before the Babblers come with a moral price, that working for Babel means aiding the empire — is really not a catch at all. It is a familiar political quandary baked into academia, especially at institutions with the history and prestige of Oxford. Many academics know all too well the impossibility of matching their political ideals with the realities of academia; recipients of fellowships and scholarships, like Kuang’s Babblers, are expected to be grateful, to not think too hard about where exactly their funding comes from.


Kuang embeds these fraught relationships with academia and 19th-century Britain into Babel’s very form — a testament to her acute awareness of sentence structure, novelistic form, and conventions of genre. Writing the Poppy War trilogy, Kuang privileged the ‘quick, brutal sentence’, ‘punchy paragraph’, and ‘lick-fast pacing’ characteristic of high octane, action-packed, grimdark fantasy. Linguistic urgency keeps readers engaged and emphasises the massively high stakes of epic fantasy. While reading 19th-century fiction as research for Babel, Kuang was struck by the different sense of time conveyed by writers like Dickens and Austen — chapters are filled with digressions, narrators cut away from the immediacy of the action to comment on its context, sentences run on at length. Borrowing from 19th-century writers and pastiches of such writing like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Kuang pens a sprawling novel with charming asides and a Victorian sensibility.


Kuang also employs footnotes throughout her novel, enabling two narrative voices to emerge: the third-person perspective limited to the protagonist Robin’s point of view and the omniscient footnote, extending beyond Robin’s immediate knowledge. The voice of the footnotes is informative (offering translations, etymologies, and sources), charmingly digressive, even comedic in its commentary — and, most effectively, it is biting. As Robin reads Austen, he asks himself, lightly, in a parenthetical, ‘Where was Antigua? And why was Sir Thomas Bertram always going there?’ A footnote answers bluntly, soberingly: ‘Because he owned slaves.’ Experimenting with academic conventions, Kuang celebrates an excess of knowledge expressed via discursive, meandering footnotes. Simultaneously, she draws attention to and subverts the ways in which academia and archives marginalise — sometimes literally — dissent.


Like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Babel exposes the problems with life inside the ivory tower. As shown by the popularity of ‘dark academia’ — an aesthetic romanticising the prestige and pretention of elite education, the architecture, traditions, and cultures of Oxbridge and Ivy League institutions — an escape into a ‘life of the mind’ is enticing. But this isolation can be dangerous, not because academic subjects of study are useless, but because they cannot be understood in the vacuum of the university. Kuang points out how in The Secret History, the characters study fundamental aspects of human relationality only to conclude that they should be able to get away with murder. ‘The insularity produces the environment in which one can create regimes of knowledge that are violent,’ Kuang says. ‘If you’re wrapped up in the ivory tower all the time and you don’t see the world for what it is, then what other conclusion can you come to?’ Babel employs dark academia to reveal the rot in its own romance of privilege.


Alongside the temptation of escapism, academia also offers the appeal of avoidance. Kuang admits to practising so-called ‘champagne socialism’ at Oxford: ‘We’d go in the classroom and talk about colonialism and how awful Oxford is and how it’s the people who were trained at Oxford and Cambridge who led these campaigns and who continually exploit a lot of the rest of the world, and then we’d go back to the college and enjoy these gorgeous grounds, funded with what money?’


Kuang’s predicament is a common problem. ‘A lot of well-meaning, leftist students at elite institutions are trapped between the neo-liberal urge to put themselves in a position to make a lot of money and look out for themselves — get insurance, get all the assurances of living in the class that they are used to — and also this genuine urge to make the world a better place, whatever that means.’ What Babel wants to teach us, Kuang explains, is that ‘you can’t just keep putting off making a difference. You can’t keep telling yourself “Oh, I’ll go to law school first.” or “Oh, I’ll get all these degrees first, and then I’ll use my wealth to cause change.” It requires giving up things that a lot of us are really used to and want to keep enjoying.’


In Babel, Robin sums up the guilt of many students at elite institutions living between politics in theory and in practice: ‘I lived a life I shouldn’t have, I had what millions of people didn’t — all that suffering, Victoire, and the whole time I was drinking champagne.’


But Kuang and her work are invested in more than recognising one’s complicity in systems of power; Babel asks what we do with that realisation. As Victoire responds to Robin’s lament, ‘Don’t tell me you’re just some fragile academic who can’t handle the weight of the world now that you’ve seen it,’ one of the ‘cowards, romantics, idiots who never did a thing to change the world they found so upsetting, hiding away because they felt so guilty’. Paralysis is no answer at all.


Here, Babel’s alternate title comes into play: The Necessity of Violence. Kuang’s academic interlocutors are not only classical philosophers and translation theorists (though their voices are certainly present in Babel’s pages) but also scholars of revolution, of resistance, of decolonisation. Kuang translates ideas from Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth into the words of one of her characters, Griffin: ‘Violence shocks the system. And the system cannot survive the shock.’ While Babel begins as an exploration of the power of translation, literalised through magic silver bars, it becomes a meditation on resistance, asking what it takes to make an empire listen.


Writing the Poppy War trilogy, which includes explicit descriptions of gratuitous violence, Kuang learned ‘we’re never really that far from the side of brutality and violence and cruelty. It really only takes certain social situations to create situations like the cultural revolution where everyone’s ganging up on their neighbours and beating people in public. We like to think that we’re so civilised and that we’d never do that — that’s all in the past and we don’t do that now — but obviously that is not true.’


Babel, too, complicates the narrative that violence is something ‘civilised’ countries have risen above. Consistently, the white English characters disclose a remarkable capacity for brutality. ‘When the situation calls for it,’ Kuang says, ‘the mask of civility falls away, and all that’s left is sheer cruelty’. Despite its moments of ruthlessness, Kuang states that Babel is ‘not trying to speak about violence qua violence as much as it’s trying to talk about sacrifice’. It forces readers to confront the question: what are we willing to give up in order to effect change?


Though Kuang’s fiction is engaged with complex, demanding ideas of revolution, violence, politics, and personhood, she has faced difficulties in getting her work taken seriously. Despite many speculative writers producing books with thorough worldbuilding, fascinating plots, and beautiful prose, fantasy is still viewed as less artistically meritorious than other genres. Awards committees and reviewers often overlook works if they are published by an imprint known for fantasy titles.


From an optimistic perspective, ‘genre fiction’ is becoming somewhat more accepted. More universities are offering courses on speculative fiction. The Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy are gaining in prestige. Linguists and literary scholars are increasingly turning to invented fantasy languages in their work.


Though Kuang continues to speak about and advocate for fantasy fiction, she feels her writerly interests shifting along with her reading habits. She started writing The Poppy War when she was reading lots of epic fantasy; Babel emerged from reading historical fiction and real-world stories with speculative elements. Recently, Kuang has turned to contemporary literary fiction. Her next book, Yellowface (due to be published in 2023), is set in the contentious contemporary publishing world and follows a white author who steals the manuscript of a more successful Asian American novelist. As she becomes more interested in playing with time and textual form, Kuang expects whatever comes after Yellowface will be a formal experiment.


As she tests out new ways of writing, Kuang will continue exploring the difficulties of making oneself understood, especially within systems that privilege certain languages and cultures: ‘I'm constantly self-translating; I think we all are. But translation is harder for some than others.’


PAIGE ALLEN reads for an MSt in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at St Hugh's College. She believes in astrology, ghosts, and the power of journalism.


Art by Agnes Halladay