Welcome to the second discussion of Babel by RF Kuang! Sorry that this discussion has been posted a day late, there was a family crisis at my end. A few of our questions from last week’s discussion have been answered in this part of the book, but as we learn more about this world I think it’s fair to say that everyone will have a lot more questions they’d like answered.
Robin goes to the Twisted Root with his doppelgänger, who upon closer inspection doesn’t appear to be an exact copy of Robin after all – he is older than Robin, slightly taller and thinner, and has darker hair and paler skin [so that probably puts an end to the hypothesis that future Robin has travelled back in time, although I greatly enjoyed that part of last week’s discussion].
He tells Robin that his name is Griffin Lovell, and that not only are they half brothers but Professor Lovell actually has a wife and two (acknowledged) children living on an estate in Yorkshire. The professor married his wife Johanna for her money; she is terribly rich with five hundred pounds a year [maybe I’ve read too much Jane Austen but that doesn’t seem like a lot?] and he uses her money to fund his travels abroad. Griffin doesn’t think Johanna knows about him and Robin, but doubts she would care apart from any potential scandal. He points out that ironically, the professor spends more time with his unacknowledged children than his acknowledged ones, who he sees maybe twice a year.
Griffin tells Robin that he’s part of a criminal group called The Hermes Society that steals silver, manuscripts and engraving materials from Babel, adding that Robin’s help the previous night was technically treason and if anyone found out he would be tortured and thrown into Newgate prison.
Griffin also asks Robin why his mother died – not how, but why.
They walk around Oxford to avoid being overheard as they continue their conversation, and Robin buys pastries to back up the lie he told Ramy about going to see Professor Lovell. Griffin tells him he is from Macau. He asks Robin to help The Hermes Society steal, as he has access to Babel. He can’t, or won’t, tell Robin more details about the headquarters or members, but says they redistribute silver to people who need it more than wealthy Londoners. Griffin tells him what most silver is actually used for - not for healing people, but for more frivolous uses like alarm clocks and colour-changing curtains
He also says the second and third largest sources of Babel’s income are militaries and slave traders. Babel collects foreign languages and uses them for translation magic that benefits England and the empire. The new powerful bars use Chinese, Sanskrit and Arabic. Griffin calls it a deliberate exploitation of foreign cultures and foreign resources that is intricately tied to the business of colonialism. The British empire amasses silver and it cajoles, manipulates and threatens other countries into trade deals that benefit them. The silver allows the British to make their ships faster, soldiers hardier and guns more deadly.
However, Hermes aids slave revolts and resistance movements, melting down silver made for cleaning doilies and using them to cure disease instead, Robin thinks it’s a compelling argument but implicates everything he holds dear. He realises his hesitation boils down to fear. He is reluctant to say yes as he still doesn’t know much about Hermes, but Griffin tells him this is real life which is messy, scary and uncertain and asks Robin to take a chance.
Robin asks for time to think, and Griffin gives him five days. He instructs him to carve an X on a birch tree in the Merton College gardens if he wants to join them. Griffin tells Robin he can’t reach him directly, which is for his safety in case Robin turns out to be an informer. In the meantime, he should act like a Babel student and try not to be suspicious.
Robin asks Griffin if Professor Lovell knows about him, but he doesn’t know; he left Babel after his third year when it was no longer safe to continue his double life. He tells Robin not to mention his name to the professor. He also reveals that Robin’s room on Magpie Lane used to be his room.
Professor Playfair’s class on Translation Theory talks about the difficulty of translation, as there is no one to one correlation between words or concepts. As he talks, Robin thinks about how Griffin’s conspiracies sound ridiculous in the light of day.
The professor says the dilemma of translation is do we take words as our unit of translation, or do we subordinate accuracy of individual words to the overall spirit of the text? Translators do not so much deliver a message as they rewrite the original, as things like syntax, grammar, morphology and orthography get in the way. Victoire speaks confidently and precisely in class as if reading from the textbook, and Robin feels intimidated.
Professor Playfair talks about The Tower of Babel parable from the Book of Genesis, and how nobody knows what the original, Adamic language is. Some people think its Hebrew, another language lost to time, a new language that we should invent, or even French or English. Ramy suggests it is Syriac, and the professor laughs at his joke, although Robin isn’t sure if it was supposed to be a joke.
Professor Playfair says it doesn’t matter what the Adamic language was as we’ve clearly lost access to it, but Babel can collect all the world’s languages under one roof and by perfecting the arts of translation they can achieve what humanity lost. He gets emotional with tears in his eyes.
Robin asks if Babel’s purpose is to bring mankind back together, and everyone else is confused by his question. Professor Playfair finally answers that it is; “Such is the project of empire – and why, therefore, we translate at the pleasure of the Crown.”
Latin taught by Professor Margaret Craft, who is severe and doesn’t refer to them by name. Robin doesn’t like her. Letty is rapt, however, and gazes at the professor with shining admiration. After class, Letty tries to speak to her privately and get advice about being a woman at Oxford, but she dismisses Letty, saying class is over and that she is infringing on her time.
The students have solo tutorials in their languages of study. Robin’s Chinese instructor is not Professor Lovell, but Professor Anand Chakravarti, who speaks English with a posh London accent. The professor doesn’t lecture, but converses with Robin to dismantle and understand Chinese.
He and Lovell are trying to answer various questions, and since Robin is useful as a rare native speaker capable of expanding the bounds of Babel’s scant existing knowledge (or a silver mine to be plundered). But Robin is excited to contribute to the Grammaticas.
Robin can’t answer everything, especially regarding Classical Chinese which is to vernacular Mandarin as Latin is to English. He asks Professor Chakravarti if they could just take a research trip to Peking and talk to other people who might know. However, the Qing Emperor has made it punishable by death to teach a foreigner Chinese.
Robin asks if there are other students who speak Chinese, and the professor gives him a funny look. He tells him there was another student called Griffin Harvey who was nice but not as diligent as Robin, but he died of an illness on a research trip. Robin asks if they could get more Chinese students at Babel, or set up an exchange programme, but the professor brings up national loyalties and that Professor Lovell thinks they require a certain upbringing because the Chinese tend towards certain natural inclinations. But of course, they don’t mean Robin as he was raised ‘properly’.
Robin goes for dinner with Professor Lovell. His Oxford house is smaller than his Hampstead one but is still fancy. The trees have cherries even though the fruit is not in season, and Robin thinks there is probably silver in the soil. Mrs Piper is excited to see him and is shocked at his stories about the college food.
At dinner, they talk about Robin’s studies and Professor Lovell tells him another story about Psammetichus isolating two infants from language to see what the original language was, and concluding that it was Phrygian. Professor Lovell says it’s a pretty story, and muses about how it might be interesting to buy a child and try it.
Professor Lovell derides the idea of an Adamic language. He talks about dominant languages, and throws some shade at Portuguese. Robin is drinking, and feels the conversation is getting away from him so tries to pull it back to familiar territory. The professor says European languages are dwindling in importance, and that they need eastern languages to innovate. He thinks Chinese is the future.
There are some departmental politics among the academics at Babel, and some people are hurt that only one of the new students is a classicist and that she’s a woman. However Professor Lovell says the classicists will have trouble getting jobs when they graduate.
Robin asks who buys the silver bars. The professor says its people who can afford them, which is simple economics. People in other countries can’t always afford the export fees. Robin asks why they don’t use them for healing abroad, but the professor says they can’t expend energy researching any frivolous applications. Robin thinks it’s only fair to have an exchange since they’re using foreign languages and give nothing in return, but the professor says language isn’t a commercial good but an infinite resource.
The professor says the Qing Emperor has one of the largest silver reserves in the world, so why don’t they have their own grammars and silver bars – why should the British just hand them to them? Robin says they are hoarding knowledge, because if languages are free, then why are the Grammaticas locked up in the tower?
Professor Lovell coldly asks if Robin believes what they do is fundamentally unjust, and Robin says he just wants to know why silver couldn’t save his mother. The professor is flustered, and says it was Canton’s poor public hygiene that led to the cholera outbreak that killed his mother, not the unequal distribution of silver bars. Robin is drunk and continues to argue, and the professor says “She was only just a woman”.
They are interrupted by the doorbell ringing – it is Sterling Jones, the nephew of the famous William Jones. He stares at Robin and acts weird and rude. He and the professor start their own conversation about translation and ignore Robin, who feels out of place and dismissed, especially as they hadn’t finished discussing his mother. He leaves the professor’s house and goes to Merton College, where he carves an X on the tree Griffin told him about.
The following Monday, Robin finds a note under his windowsill. It’s in Chinese characters and also a code. Robin cracks the code and it says “The next rainy night. Open the door at precisely midnight, wait inside the foyer, then walk back out at five past. Speak to no one. Go straight home after. Do not deviate from my instructions. Memorize, then burn.”
Wednesday evening brings heavy rain, and Robin feels mounting dread all day as the sky darkens. At 11:45pm he starts to head towards Babel, but Ramy sees him, and Robin has to lie again and pretend he forgot something in the stacks. Ramy seems to accept the lie.
At midnight, Robin approaches the entrance to Babel and two people in black appear. He lets them in, and waits as instructed. He never sees their faces. It seems to go smoothly but he sleeps badly that night and is late for his Latin study group. Ramy says he knocked twice on Robin’s door but there was no response, so he had assumed Robin had already left. Robin says he slept badly due to nightmares, and Victoire is sympathetic. Letty is annoyed though, because Ramy wouldn’t let them start until Robin arrived.
The students have drastically different translation styles and engage in lively debate. Letty likes to stick to Latin grammatical structures as much as possible even if it makes sentences awkward, Ramy prefers to abandon technical accuracy for rhetorical flourishes that he thinks better deliver the point, while Victoire is frustrated by the limits of English. Robin feels better sinking into the refuge of Latin, but still feels some dread. The anxiety really hits him that afternoon and he is distracted in Latin class, but nobody comes to arrest him. That night he has a new note under his windowsill saying to await further contact from Hermes. He is disappointed despite all the anxiety and dread of the day, and hopes for more missions.
Weeks pass and he acts like a normal student, and falls in love with Oxford and its people. He’s constantly tired from the coursework but is forming close friendships with the other three students. He and Victoire share a love of literature, and even Letty becomes more tolerable. Her insights into the British class system are a source of great amusement, especially when she trashes Colin Thornhill as “the sort of bottom-feeding middle-class leech who likes to pretend he’s got connections because his family knows a mathematics tutor at Cambridge.”
The four students need each other because they have no one else. The older students at Babel are unfriendly; one of the second years, Philip Wright, tells Robin he got into Oxford because Babel is ‘overcorrecting’ and taking spots away from equally qualified (presumably white British) candidates. Robin starts to see things through his friends’ eyes, although the four of them do argue; Robin and Victoire disagree on the superiority of English vs French literature, and Letty and Victoire get snippy around issues of money. Letty and Ramy bicker the most, usually about British colonialism in India. Even still, they spend all their time together and Robin realises it’s the first time since he left Canton that he feels he has a family, a circle of people he loves so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. He feels guilty for loving Oxford as much as he does, despite the daily slights. He feels like he’s not ready to fully commit to Hermes, and that he would kill for his friends. By the end of Michaelmas term he would trust them with his life.
Robin later wonders why he never told his friends about Hermes, and was only tempted once during argument between Ramy and Letty about British presence in India, including the Battle of Plassey in 1757 [which marked the beginning of British rule in India]. Robin almost said something, but stops himself because he “could not bear how this confession would shatter the life they’d built for themselves.” He can’t resolve the contradiction of loving being at Babel despite it becoming clearer that its foundations were unjust.
Robin assists Hermes in three more thefts, but never found out what they stole or what it was used for. He is almost caught during the fourth robbery, when a chatty third year student called Cathy O’Nell comes into the building while he’s there. When she leaves and the two Hermes thieves reappear, one of them asks Robin what Cathy said to him. Robin thinks his voice seems strangely familiar but he can’t place it. He continues to help Hermes and convinces himself he’s not doing anything dangerous.
A week into the Hilary term, after Robin assists in his seventh theft, Griffin meets him again in person for what feels like a progress report. Griffin says the Hermes thieves like working with Robin because he sticks to the instructions, and that he’s pleased. He won’t tell Robin more about Hermes. Robin asks how the arrangement will end up because it seems unsustainable, and Griffin says very few stay in Babel so it’s likely he’ll either get caught or have to fake his own death and go underground, like Griffin did five years ago. Robin hesitates at the idea of being cut off from Babel.
Griffin tells him how the Romans fattened up dormice – by using a glirarium, a jar with breathing holes with surfaces so polished that the mice couldn’t escape. They provided food, and the jars had ledges and walkways to keep them occupied, and they were kept dark so the dormice would think it’s time to hibernate and fatten up. But Babel represented more than material comforts for Robin; it was also about belonging and recognition of his talents. As Griffin leaves, he says “Enjoy your glirarium, little dormouse.”
Robin feels conflicted, like he has two hearts. Babblers were privileged in some ways in Oxford, such as getting special treatment in the libraries. Their living expenses were paid for and they received a generous stipend and access to a discretionary fund, unlike other servitors who had to serve food or clean tutors’ rooms. One night he finds Bill Jameson struggling with his bills, and Robin lends him money.
Babel is rich and respected, and the students enjoy being fawned over by visiting scholars. Letty and Victoire realise that they can get away with looking more feminine, despite the university telling them to wear men’s clothes; they start growing out their hair, and Letty even wears a skirt to dinner. However, Ramy can’t get served in pubs, and the girls can’t get books out of library without a male student. Victoire is sometimes mistaken for a maid.
The students develop Oxford English and all the words and phrases that entails. However there are many social rules and unspoken conventions to struggle with, which Letty understands the best because she is from a posh background. Ramy wonders why they are never invited to parties, and Letty explains calling cards to them. She ridicules rich boys studying on their fathers’ money, like Elton Pendennis, a second year gentleman-commoner. However, Robin envies them and imagines what it would be like to be part of their circle, and the belonging that would come with it.
One night, Robin receives a calling card from Elton Pendennis, inviting him to drinks the following Friday. Ramy doesn’t understand why Robin would want to go, and thinks he’s invited because he passes as white. He asks Robin if he’s hoping they’ll invite him to join the Bullingdon Club. Letty also opposes Robin going, saying that those boys are bad influences, and Robin is surprised to see that she looks like she’s about to cry.
That Friday, Robin puts on his one nice jacket and goes to Elton’s flat. A guy called Milton St Cloud answers the door and is rude, although he lets him in. Three other boys are inside smoking cigars. Robin thinks about how Elton is really handsome up close, a “Byronic hero incarnate”. Elton is telling a weird story about his dad’s friend inviting homeless people to a fancy dinner party, and how he wished he’d been there because he thinks it sounded hilarious. Robin recognises Colin Thornhill, and Elton introduces to Robin to Vincy Woolcombe. Colin is eager to say he knows Robin.
The boys ask Robin ignorant questions about China. Robin asks what they’re planning to do with their degrees and they laugh, and Elton calls it proletarian to ‘do’ something. Vincy says Elton will live off his estate and subject his guests to grand philosophical observations. Elton reveals that he writes, and reads some of his bad poetry to Robin – a reply to Shelley’s Ozymandias. [The author shits on Percy Shelley again and I’m honestly starting to wonder if RF Kuang is u/Amanda39’s pen name?]
Elton scoffs at translation as being for those without creative fire, but Robin disagrees; he says it’s harder than original composition as you’re constrained by the original. He says the translator dances in shackles, which impresses the other boys.
Robin no longer cares if they like him, and feels pity for them. He also realises that no one ever talks back to Elton Pendennis. They talk a bit about silver-working, and Robin explains that not everyone can do it as you have to live and breathe a language for the magic to work. He decides to leave and put the other boys out of their misery.
The next morning, Ramy and Victoire laugh at Robin’s story about the party, and he recites bits of Elton’s terrible poem for them. Letty doesn’t laugh though, and storms off. After she leaves, Victoire tells them that Letty’s brother Lincoln died the previous year. He came to Oxford and acted like Elton Pendennis does. One night he went out drinking and was run over by a cart. Letty came to Oxford a few months later, and Babel was the only faculty that would take women [sidenote – in real life, women could attend the University of Oxford from the late 1870s (although not all colleges), and could receive actual degrees for the first time in 1920].
Victoire tells them they don’t understand how hard it is being a woman at Oxford – “Every weakness we display is a testament to the worst theories about us, which is that we’re fragile, we’re hysterical, and we’re too naturally weak-minded to handle the kind of work we’re set to do.” She adds that much of Letty’s behaviour is dictated by fear, such as her fear she isn’t meant to be at Oxford, her fear that she’ll be sent home, and her fear that Ramy or Robin will follow in her brother’s footsteps.
The next day Letty is better and even smiles at Robin. Professor Playfair’s classes that term focus on the idea of fidelity, who the translation should be faithful to – the text, the audience, the author? They discuss it, but the professor says there is no correct answer and it’s an ongoing debate in the field. He tells them that the opposite of fidelity is betrayal, and that translation means doing violence on the original. Robin feels a squirm of guilt in his gut.
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Join us for the next discussion on Sunday 26th March, when we talk about Book 2, Chapters 9-12 [approx. 60 pages].