Thursday 16 May 2024

Aw Warlds In Aw Leids Is Metaphors (Translated Blog Post)

Canadian media theorist an weel-kent cultural icon Marshall McLuhan aince descrived art as “a distant early warning system that can always be relied upon to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

Babel – the split new novel fae Astounding Award winner R.F.Kuang – seems tae fit this defineetion. It micht be the maist McLunan-like leewark ever wrutten an-aw.

(Eemage bi gait o Goodreads)

 Set in 1830s Ingland, Babel follaes a Cantonee orphant cryed Robin Swift that’s taen on tae wirk for Oxfuird’s depairtment for owersettins, in a warld whaur the owersettin o words fae ae leid intil anither can hae an uncannie affcome. The glamourie aroond owersettin is at the hert o Ingland’s can tae colonise an daunton muckle o the warld, as siller baurs inscrived wi words in sindry leids can shaw the meaning that’s “tint” throu owersettin. Awmaist alane the Unitit Kinrik hauds this technological glamourie, an Oxfuird is at the hert o the Impire’s maucht.

The'r a lang tradeetion in genre leetratur o the Breetish historical leebuik as a pyntit wark o escapism. Stories set throu the Napoleonic Weir, or the Victorian Days, can gie’s a couthie setting that affen evites ony speirings anent the stauning atween racial groups, social clesses, an sexes. This isna tae be aff-luif wi thir warks – as escapism haes its place – but this orra kind o auld fernyears can whiles edit or lea oot important maiters o social justice. Hooanever, Babel isna blate aboot the injustices o its day, but raither gets tore in aboot. It wad tak mair nor magic, the buik seems tae say, for tae mak a fairer, mair just warld.

Here a novel that traivels the Regency times setting o the historical leebuik for tae warsle wi maiters o social justice that’s at the fore o cultural screivings in lee-science an leewarks the day. In short, it uses the cultural customs o Ingland at the heicht o its colonial maucht for tae airt oot an question hoo thir systems affectit society.

It's warth takkin tent that tho mony American screivars haes attemptit tae follae the style o historical Breetish prose, the feck haes failt, affen soondin like the proverbial bool in the mou. But insteid o haunless pastiche, Babel comes ower like a leebuik William Makepeace Thackery micht’a wrutten. Kuang gies us baith a pree o the times, an prose fae the region we can lippen on, that’s that skeely we haed tae twyce check tae find oot that she wisna hersel born an reared in Hertfordshire or Dorset. (We wad strangly airt awbody tae the “Author’s Note on Her Representations of Historical England, and of the University of Oxford in Particular.”, that comes afore the text o the novel). It is awthegither braw that a buik that’s insnorlt wi langage as a concept uses it wi sic skeel.

At the hert o the themes in the buik is the three guid freens that Swift maks at Oxfuird. Victoire Desgraves, Letitia (Letty) Price, an Ramiz (Ramy) Mirza is – like Swift – three students in hauns wi makkin owersettins. Thay’v taen a scunner anent the wey that thair peers haunles race, cless, sex, or aw thae cheils thegither. Caulcuttay-born Ramy an Haitie-born Victoire feels the ill-will airtit agin them bi rich, racist an cless-reekit white students, tho Letty, that’s white hersel, never seems tae unnerstaun or tae see whit her freens is haein tae thole.
“All words, in all languages are metaphors,”
wrate Marshall McLuhan – a souch that
the leaders-aff in Babel micht haud wi
(Eemage bi gait o University of Toronto)

Aboot a decade syne, speirars o psychology in Texas vizzied the pattrens o gremmar that fowk used as a strang sign o hoo siccar thair romantic an relationship fancies micht be. The possible explanation thay offert wis that same like pattrens an order o functional words (prepositions, airticles, quantifiers, gey common verbs, an the lave) likely reflect the same pattrens o thocht…an sae can be a pynter for hoo meaningfae relationships micht be. Intressinly, this seems tae haud true athort leids. Rami an Robin - that’s life stories mirra ane an anither’s in sindry weys – speak the same langage o love an o freenship, an pit some o us in mind o thae speirings. That thay are drew til ane anither, but it’s never said fair oot, gies an emotional backbane tae the buik. As muckle as mony readers (oorsels comprehendit) wad love for thair romance tae haud-gauin cantie like, the’r mense in shawin the characters raither as presonars o the 19t century’s narra-nebbitness agin same-sex airtit fowk.

Langage can astrict an-aw, even amang thaim that speaks the same ane. For muckle o the novel, warking-cless fowk is ill-quotit. Labourers on strike is depictit as speakin raivelt an thair concerns is dealt aff-luif like bi Robin, Rami, Victoire an Letty. But syne the novel daes a rare bit o narrative clearance, shawin that even the leaders-aff can be unkennin anent maiters o social justice, an that allies can be fund in less-expectit places. Labour unions – the Oxfuird Owersettars Union comprehendit – become uphauders o solidarity an for makkin brigs atween cultures.

Efter three braw novels, R.F.Kuang haes awready estaiblisht hersel as ane o the best young screivars o the leewark genre. Wi Babel, she haes taen her wark til a new heicht.

Set ower in Scots bi Dr Dauvit Horsbroch, 2024

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