I went into “Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence” not knowing what to expect. I had picked it up at the recommendation of a friend, who said it was about languages and translation. She was right. At its heart, Babel is a book that explores the complexities of translation and how it intersects with power dynamics and colonialism. Set in Oxford during the 1830s, the novel proposes an alternate history in which our society has become dependent on a kind of magic called ‘silvermaking’ – a process that involves translating a concept from one language to another and converting that which is untranslatable – lost in translation, as one would say – into a force capable of warping the fabric of our reality in both momentous and mundane ways. A powerful tool that the British Empire wields, of course, to cement its own hegemony and control its many colonies around the world.
As someone who loves learning different languages and pondering their differences, I find the concept of silvermaking extremely fascinating. For starters, it seems to be founded on the idea that one of the following must be true: either there is a realm of pure meaning that is fundamentally inarticulable and, by virtue of this inarticulability, holds power that can reshape our physical reality; or we ourselves possess the ability to mould the world through our unique perception by describing our reality in a potentially infinite number of ways. I think which of these resonates more with you depends on the kind of person you are. I find the former more alluring, for the same reason that many are drawn to philosophy. Our world reduced to a single truth, a simple, elegant answer that will explain our entire existence. The theory of everything.
As a translator, I agree with many in the industry that true translation is fundamentally impossible – a sentiment that is echoed in the book. It is impossible for the same reason that no two humans can perceive and describe the world in the exact same way. Perfect understanding simply does not exist, even between two native speakers of the same language. Why, then, do we attempt the impossible? Why do we try, again and again, to overcome this natural order? I don’t mean situations where translation is absolutely necessary for practical reasons, like localising a manual or facilitating negotiations between parties that speak different languages. I’m talking about all the times I am suddenly overcome with the urge to translate a song or feel a peculiar desire to rewrite my own essays into a different language. From time to time, I ask myself: why? Who are you doing this for?
I get the feeling that I’m always searching – for what, I am not sure. Is it the realm of pure meaning the author spoke of in this book? Am I, like the linguistic alchemists at Babel, trying to somehow manifest that which is lost? Or is it a simple desire for connection, the feeling of being understood by another human being?
I think, in a way, we’re all constantly trying to translate ourselves – trying to give names to the shapeless thoughts, emotions and dreams that make us who we are in hopes that someone else might understand them, only to then settle for the closest approximation of that understanding. Having grown up multilingual, I’ve felt from time to time a sense of powerlessness and alienation as I struggle to express myself fully in several different languages without success. Something is always being omitted, parts of myself suppressed or distorted to fit into moulds that feel at once too big and too small. I used to think it was because I wasn’t good enough in any of the languages I spoke. Some day, I would think to myself, some day I will speak one of them well enough and then I will finally have a place in this world. But now I realise that it was impossible to begin with, that perfect understanding I was seeking. There are still days when I remember this and feel a loneliness so complete that it is almost soul-crushing.
Babel posits that translation is an inherently violent act. “Translation means doing violence upon the original,” said a character while arguing the futility of the endeavour. “It means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So, where does that leave us? How can we conclude except by acknowledging that an act of translation is always an act of betrayal?” This is perhaps true. Why then do we insist on trying, on committing this violence? There are times when the violence is necessary. Throughout the book, for example, the protagonist finds himself placed again and again in situations where he has to play both the role of the translator and that of the mediator in heated exchanges. Is it more important – or ethical – to remain faithful to the original words, or to deftly conceal the venom in them that would have steered the exchange away from the desired outcome?
But I think there’s more than that. I think sometimes we insist on the violence, on tearing down the original and then reassembling the pieces at the price of always losing something, because we hope that something might be gained as well. A melody that did not exist in the original. A foreign beauty that shines through words from another continent. And that’s why I find the idea of silvermaking so clever and poetic. It conveys a desire shared by many translators that there is something to be gained from our betrayal, that something good and beautiful can come out of this endeavour, however futile it is. The author takes this desire and turns it into something powerful – a magical, world-altering force. And isn’t that what language does, albeit in less glamorous ways? After all, language is only a vehicle for ideas, and it is our ideas that end up transforming the world.