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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation


Dennis Duncan, Stephen Harrison,
Katrin Kohl, and Matthew Reynolds

general information | review summaries | our review | links

To purchase Babel

Title: Babel
Authors: various
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2019
Length: 165 pages
Availability: Babel - US
Babel - UK
Babel - Canada
  • Adventures in Translation
  • With a Foreword by Richard Ovenden
  • With 65 colour illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : beautifully illustrated; interesting variety of pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 9/4/2019 Yasmine Seale

  From the Reviews:
  • "One of the show’s clever moves is to rescue translation from its worthy perch by revealing it at work everywhere: nuns do it, kings do it, children between home and school do it like breathing." - Yasmine Seale, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Babel is a richly illustrated collection of eight essays -- two by each of the contributors -- that accompanies the 2019 exhibit at the Bodleian Library, Babel: Adventures in Translation.
       Matthew Reynolds begins the collection by considering: 'Babel: Curse or Blessing ?' -- and begins by looking into the origin of the word and story (in Genesis 11:1-9) before going on to look at not only the multitude of languages but also the "shifting, varied medium" that is any (and all) languages, as Babel is always all around us, as it proves impossible to fix (in one point, of time and meaning) any individual language.
       In 'Debabelization: Creating a Universal Language' Dennis Duncan considers the theoretical anti-Babel, beginning with examples of mathematical notation -- which also gives him opportunity to point to Henry Billingsley's 1570 translation of Euclid's Elements as a: "call to arms for English translators", who lagged behind their continental counterparts in bringing foreign works into their language. Duncan also describes both attempts to create a universal language via notation -- a system of symbols that could be read in any language, "a kind of hieroglyphicall representation of words" (as he quotes Francis Lodwick explaining the possibility of that) -- including the elaborate one developed by John Wilkins, as well as artificial languages such as Volapük and Esperanto.
       In 'Languages Lost in Time', Duncan turns to examples such as Linear B, and how even the 'cracking' of that particular language still does not give access its predecessor, meaning: "The earlier Minoan language -- the language of Linear A and the Cretan hieroglyphs before it -- remains obscure". From here he goes on to look at ideas about how meaning might be communicable across vast amounts of time, discussing, for example, Thomas Seboek's Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia -- and concluding that, for all the interesting ideas, examples, and thought-experiments: "Beyond a few thousand years we are in uncharted territory, both linguistically and culturally".
       Two of the essays look at fables and fantasy: Stephen Harrison's look at 'Translating Tales: Beast Fables around the World' and Katrin Kohl considering 'Traversing Realms of Fantasy'. Harrison charts the way the Panchatantra and Aesop's fables have spread in different languages and versions, while Kohl looks at the story of Cinderella, among others -- with a look at the use of invented languages in fiction, too, from Lewis Carroll's games through J.R.R.Tolkien's elaborate invented Elvish tongues. Among the interesting examples is a panel from an Asterix-comic in three different languages, showing the different approaches taken in each to presenting Germanic speech in a Gaulish setting.
       Stephen Harrison also writes on 'An Epic Journey: Translating Homer's Iliad and Odyssey', offering a quick tour of the history of the translation of these classic works. Beginning with the observation that: "No full translation of Homer into Latin survives from the Roman Empire", he points out that it was only with the use of the printing press that translations in various European languages began to appear. Translation into English has repeatedly been good business too: he notes that Alexander Pope's "translations made him a rich man" while E.V.Rieu's prose translation, published as the first volume of the then new-Penguin Classics paperback series just after the end of the Second World War sold a phenomenal two million copies in it first twenty years. There's mention of looser adaptations and variations, all along the way, too, including Joyce's Ulysses, Derek Walcott's Omeros, and Alice Oswald's Memorial. An informative quick overview, it is somewhat limited in scope, but a decent enough introduction.
       In 'Translating the Divine' Matthew Reynolds looks specifically at religious texts -- from the Book of Mormon (which Joseph Smith was able to translate with the help of the 'seer stones' Urim and Thummim -- which can be seen as an: "early version of Google Translate", Reynolds suggests) to the Qur'an and then the path to the King James Bible. As with most of these essay-subjects, there's a lot more that could be explored here, but he covers some of the interesting basic points and examples.
       Finally, in 'Negotiating Multilingual Britain' Katrin Kohl looks at the "evolving linguistic landscape" of the British Isles as, for all the apparent international dominance of English, a multitude of languages have played, and continue to play, a significant role in Britain itself. As she also points out:

even within English, people move between a standard lingua franca and local languages or dialects, between varieties spoken in public and official contexts and varieties spoken with friends and family.
       Her point that: "translation is an intrinsic part of our daily lives" is indeed applicable pretty much across the board -- well beyond the British example, too.
       As a book accompanying an exhibit, Babel: Adventures in Translation is, unsurprisingly, extensively -- and quite sumptuously -- illustrated, and while many of the full-color images are indeed text-examples, they are often stunning reproductions taken from old books and similar sources. The variety of illustrations does also go significantly beyond book(ish)-examples, ranging from interesting graphs -- part of this one (taken from), for example -- to arresting familiar iconography. It makes for a very visually appealing volume, too, and with its relatively short and manageable pieces is a lovely book to dip into.
       While not nearly so in-depth as to ever feel really academic, the pieces in Babel: Adventures in Translation do present quick, broad overviews of quite a variety of translation- and language-related subjects beyond the merely obvious. Along with the many illustrations, it makes for an agreeably thought-provoking collection -- with readers likely to be eager to explore some of this in greater depth; endnote-references -- more than a (far too brief) summary-recommendation of Further Reading -- help point to at least the beginning of the way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 July 2019

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