babel, or the necessity of violence: an arcane history of the oxford translators’ revolution – r.f. kuang | review


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

Published August 23rd 2022 by Harper Voyager
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Rep: Chinese MC, Indian Muslim SC, Black SC, POC SCs


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal. 

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel. 

Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down? 

Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.


trigger and content warnings:
  • racism, colonialism, racial slurs, violence, death, murder, classism, abandonment, alcohol, drug abuse, bullying, emotional and physical abuse, grief, misogyny and sexism, suicide/ suicidal thoughts, toxic friendship, police brutality, islamophobia, xenophobia, self-harm, vomit, genocide, hate crime, cultural appropriation, blood, slavery, gun violence, child abuse, war, death of a parent, forced institutionalization, gore, injury, etc.
  • taken from kio’s goodreads

Oh, my word. Each time I finish an R.F. Kuang book, I need a moment to collect my thoughts. Babel is no different. I’m in awe of how much was packed into the book. R.F. Kuang shook me to the core. Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution detailed the lives of scholars in their natural habitat, the academic courses in which they learned about history, languages, and every other specialized topic. It showed the good, bad, and ugly. 

“Language was just difference. A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving through the world. No; a thousand worlds within one. And translation – a necessary endeavour, however futile, to move between them.”

The whole of Robin’s life is illustrated within Babel including the pivoting moments that changed the trajectory of his life. In the beginning, dying Robin was rescued from a sickness that killed his entire family. Whisked off to London by a professor and got an education in Chinese, Latin, and Greek. All for a spot at Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation. Robin thought he would spend his entire life researching, translating, and silver-working. When Hermes approached him, Robin is caught between serving Babel and sabotaging silver-working. With little to no knowledge of Hermes’ inner circle, Robin needs to decide if he wants to support an institution that is trying to wage war against China. What imprint will he leave in this world?

Robin’s first friend is an Indian Muslim. They often find themselves the only non-White students at Oxford University and stuck together. Compared to Robin, Ramy is more daring in voicing his opinions about others, especially when it’s against racism and colonialism. Along with Letty, Victoire, and Ramy, Robin navigates a hostile environment whereby they are forever judged for who they are, by their color, gender, class, and birth. However, it’s obvious that Letty would never understand the prejudice and discrimination faced by a person of color like Robin, Victoire, and Ramy do.

“Be selfish,’ he whispered. ‘Be brave.”

This feels like a love letter to language. The beauty of it all, the complexity, the art of it. How the original language can be filtered down, diluted, and changed when translated to another language. With silver-working, the scholars at Babel know they are assets but not irreplaceable. With time, Robin’s ability to translate freely between languages gave him an advantage. An illusion. Soon, he will find out that, they simply don’t care.

Page after page, moment after moment, R.F. Kuang made sure that the injustice and racism faced by the marginalized students are evident. Sometimes the cruelties landed in an unknowingly soft way, other times, it’s ringing in your ears. I’m definitely not explaining this really well. However, I felt it deep in my bones.

R.F. Kuang has once again torn my heart apart. I loved exploring the topics of colonialism, linguistics, and revolution in this Oxford setting, at this point in time. Adding in the more fantastical elements of silver-working with translation was perfection.

I need to lie down.

📚 spoiler-filled thoughts
  • it’s been a few days and i’m still upset about the ending. however, i can’t think of an alternative. letty’s hostility towards them and her unwillingness to think from their angle frustrated me. it pains to watch the group get torn apart but letty can never seem to understand what the other three were going through. she betrayed them thoroughly. truthfully, i wasn’t 100% sure that letty was into hermes’ plans at all. there was this lingering suspicion within me. but! she did help cover up professor lovell’s murder so maybe she wasn’t that bad. BUT! SHE PROVED ME WRONG.

  • ramy’s, and the hermes members deaths, shook robin to the core. from there onwards, he just kept escalating, wanting to do more, wanting to hurt more. he didn’t care that he was using violence. not like before. he could feel victoire’s stare at him whenever he makes a decision that’s oddly vicious.

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