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The wonder and terror of translation
This week I read R.F. Kuang’s newest novel, Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution.I’d seen it show up on a lot of what-to-read lists this year. I’ve found in my reading life that I have about the same success rate finding great books using those lists as I do just randomly browsing the shelves of new books at the library, which is to say, books don’t always live up to their hype. Babel definitely does. In addition to being masterfully written, it’s also the kind of book I’ll be thinking about for weeks and months after.
The book is historical science fiction/fantasyand Kuang has several degrees in Chinese studies, as well as currently pursuing a Ph.D. in East Asian Language and Literature, which is to say, she knows her stuff. Being married to a British historian who teaches a class on empire, as well as having read a lot of Indian history, I have a passing acquaintance with how the British empire functioned. But Babel made me realize the vast, China-shaped gap in that knowledge. If you’re at all interested in a deep-dive into the perverse, twisted machinations of empire, this is the book for you.
Does it seem weird to turn to science fiction/fantasy as a way to learn about actual history? Well, not if you read Kuang and she’s not the only writer in this sub-genre. I learned a lot about the history of 14th century China in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun (also a fascinating exploration of gender and a great book and I cannot wait for the next installment) and about Russian history from Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy (The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in the series).
The cool thing about these books and others like them is that they use the science fiction/fantasy elements of the story in a way that enhances the essential social, political and/or economic forces at play in the “real” history. In The Winternight Trilogy, magic becomes a way of highlighting the clash between indigenous religious/spiritual beliefs and the growing power of Christianity. In Babel, the fantasy elements make clear the ways in which translation and language are essential tools of empire. The fantastical elements, to some extent, make the history more, rather than less, real.
Also, as Foucault would say, all history is imagined. Take from it what’s useful and move on.
One of the things about Babel that I’ll be specifically ruminating on for a long time is all the questions the novel raises about the act of translation. Is translation truly possible? Is it desirable? Is it always an act of violence? And the biggest one of all for me—is translation really all we’re ever doing in our attempts to communicate?
Take the case of emotions, which I wrote about in Monday’s newsletter. Researchers like Brené Brown attempt to wrap language around our emotional states, to translate the chaos of physiological sensations and neuron activity into words like shame, resentment or joy. But, of course, something is lost in the translation. The language of our emotions is not in words and sentences, which is why it’s so hard for us to talk about them much of the time. We slap a word on a sensation in order to understand it, but the understanding is always incomplete.
Then there’s writing, which is always a form of translation, even when I’m writing in my native language. The thoughts in my head are amorphous and chaotic, but I translate them into a grammar with rules and structure. What you’re reading right now is already one removed from how the thoughts went inside my head. I hope that some kernel of what I meant to say gets carried over the border, but we all know it’s an imperfect system. When it’s fiction, the act of translation is even more pronounced. I’m translating for the imaginary people inside my head, trying to make their lives and feelings coherent to a distant reader.
Every time we open our mouths to speak to another human being, we are engaging in translation. We’re trying to communicate the strange, private, unreachable territory inside our heads to someone else. But sadly (or fortunately?), no one else will ever really be able to join us on the island that is our own minds. We’re each stranded there alone, sending messages in a bottle to the outside world and hoping that something of what we want to convey gets through.
That sounds very lonely, but I think it’s hopeful, too. Translating isn’t easy. It takes careful study and knowledge and concentration. Ever had those moments when you just feel too exhausted to even try to talk? Exactly. Because translation is hard work.
It’s hard work and it fails so often. “No, that’s not what I meant,” we say. And then we try again. I’m a great proponent in my classroom of talking it out, just keeping the words flowing until you arrive at something that sounds as close as possible to what you actually wanted to say. Even then, it might not be quite right.
Translation is hard with a high rate of failure and yet we keep at it. We keep hopefully throwing those messages in a bottle out into the endless, empty sea. We keep talking to each other, trying to bridge the distances. To fill in the gaps in meaning. It might be one of the things we’re very best at as human beings, even if we so often fail.
At any rate—Babel. You should read it.
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Can I just pause for a moment to say how hard this sub-genre has to be to write? First, it’s historical fiction, so you have to know the history, which means researching in-depth things like, what would they have eaten for lunch or worn to bed in 1838? Then it’s fantasy/science fiction, which means world-building the whole fantastical part of it. What are the rules of the magic? How does the world fit together? Just thinking about it makes me exhausted. Then there’s all the plot structure, character development, sentence-by-sentence structure of a regular novel. I love reading these books, but thinking about writing one makes my eyes cross.
It might be true that all great science fiction/fantasy does this—uses magic or technology to tell truer stories about the real world. It’s certainly what I always loved about Buffy—the use of fantasy to tell a deeper truth about being a teenager, college student or floundering young adult. I mean, didn’t everyone at some point suspect their college roommate might be a demon? Yes, Lisa, that would be you. Still not sure about that.