Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution - by R. F. Kuang

‘Translate, please.’ This all hinged on him, Robin realized. The choice was his. Only he could determine the truth, because only he could communicate it to all parties.

As long as Professor Lovell did not accept him as a son, Robin would not attempt to claim him as a father. A lie was not a lie if it was never uttered; questions that were never asked did not need answers. They would both remain perfectly content to linger in the liminal, endless space between truth and denial.

‘I write,’ Pendennis said with very deliberate indifference, the way people who are very conceited throw out morsels of information they hope become objects of fascination.

‘I think translation can be much harder than original composition in many ways. The poet is free to say whatever he likes, you see – he can choose from any number of linguistic tricks in the language he’s composing in. Word choice, word order, sound – they all matter, and without any one of them the whole thing falls apart. That’s why Shelley writes that translating poetry is about as wise as casting a violet into a crucible. So the translator needs to be translator, literary critic, and poet all at once – he must read the original well enough to understand all the machinery at play, to convey its meaning with as much accuracy as possible, then rearrange the translated meaning into an aesthetically pleasing structure in the target language that, by his judgment, matches the original. The poet runs untrammelled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.’

Schleiermacher argued that translations should be sufficiently unnatural that they clearly present themselves as foreign texts. He argued there were two options: either the translator leaves the author in peace and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace and moves the author towards him. Schleiermacher chose the former. Yet the dominant strain in England now is the latter – to make translations sound so natural to the English reader that they do not read as translations at all.

That year, using English as an example, they began the task of studying how languages grew, changed, morphed, multiplied, diverged, and converged. They studied sound changes; why the English knee had a silent k that was pronounced in the German counterpart; why the stop consonants of Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit had such a regular correspondence with consonants in Germanic languages. They read Bopp, Grimm, and Rask in translation; they read the Etymologiae of Isidorus. They studied semantic shifts, syntactical change, dialectical divergence, and borrowing, as well as the reconstructive methods one might use to piece together the relationships between languages that at first glance seemed to have nothing to do with each other. They dug through languages like they were mines, searching for valuable veins of common heritage and distorted meaning. It changed the way they spoke. Constantly they trailed off in the middle of sentences. They could not utter even common phrases and aphorisms without pausing to wonder where those words came from. Such interrogations infiltrated all their conversations, became the default way they made sense of each other and everything else. They could no longer look at the world and not see stories, histories, layered everywhere like centuries’ worth of sediment.

‘The Germans have this lovely word, Sitzfleisch,’ Professor Playfair said pleasantly when Ramy protested that they had over forty hours of reading a week. ‘Translated literally, it means “sitting meat”. Which all goes to say, sometimes you need simply to sit on your bottom and get things done.’

Such a grotesque ceremony seemed unbefitting of a modern academic institution. Yet this was utterly appropriate. Oxford, and Babel by extension, were, at their roots, ancient religious institutions, and for all their contemporary sophistication, the rituals that comprised university life were still based in medieval mysticism. Oxford was Anglicanism was Christianity, which meant blood, flesh, and dirt.